Conductor accused of pressuring musicians

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 October, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 October, 2002, 12:00am

Musicians in the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra claim controversial conductor Samuel Wong has been asking them to sign a letter praising his record following a management decision not to renew his contract.

Wong yesterday dismissed their claims as 'baseless rumours', without commenting further, but an official orchestra spokesman confirmed the allegations had been made.

Some musicians said they feared they would be sacked if they refused to sign the letter of support, which they believed Wong had written himself.

The orchestra responded yesterday by stating Wong no longer had the power to hire or fire players as an outgoing music director.

Ten musicians quit the orchestra mid-contract earlier this year, some citing what they claimed was widespread dissatisfaction with orchestra management and Wong. Nineteen musicians have left the orchestra - funded by taxpayers to the tune of $60 million a year - since Wong was appointed, and 15 have been sacked.

Philharmonic musicians allege Wong initially approached the orchestra players' committee and asked it to sign the letter supporting him, but the group refused to do so without a meeting of all members. Then Wong started asking musicians individually into his dressing room at the Cultural Centre and asked them to sign the letter, they said.

An orchestra spokesman confirmed it had received complaints from players who said Wong had asked them to sign the letter and that they had done so because they feared for their jobs.

Management had not seen the letter but understood about 12 of the 89 members had signed it, he said. The management was not in a position to prevent Wong from seeking support from among the players, he added.

The orchestra recently announced it will not reappoint Wong after his three-year contract ends next July, ending months of speculation. In announcing the decision, management said the orchestra had grown in repertoire and profile under Wong.

One player said he was shocked at Wong's method of seeking support, which he felt was immoral given the power balance between conductor and musicians. 'He is the boss and new contracts will come up in February . . . intimidation is the word players are using to describe what is happening,' he said, adding that he had not been asked to sign. Another player, approached by the South China Morning Post, said the letter stated that the woodwind section had improved significantly under Wong.

The player said he signed the letter but, when asked if he had done so freely, he refused to comment other than to say that 'to me, the most important thing is to have a job'.

A third musician, who had not been asked to sign the letter, described Wong's campaign as outrageous. 'We feel pressured to sign it. He's sacked a good number of people. People feel if they don't sign it, they will be the next ones to be sacked,' he said.

Wong was recently reappointed conductor of the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra. Earlier this year, star cellist Yo-yo Ma publicly backed Wong - a former eye surgeon who turned to full-time conducting in 1990.