A few sour notes

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 June, 2010, 12:00am

Four! Edo de Waart raises four fingers to make his point. The directive wasn't for musicians to play on the downbeat but was instead addressed to some 20 housewives about to march into a lift at the Cultural Centre: that was the number that could fit into the tiny space.

The Dutch maestro seemed pleased they followed his lead, but that hasn't always been the case in his efforts with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra.

Appointed artistic director and chief conductor in 2004, he was charged with building the group of 90-plus musicians into a top orchestra befitting the self-styled Asia's World City. Yet, he reckons his mission has been stymied by government indifference as much as budget constraints.

Known for his forthright views, de Waart's announcement in March that he would leave the orchestra in 2012 has only cleared the way for more frank speech. The 69-year-old conductor is clearly frustrated by what he views as inadequate support since taking up the baton in Hong Kong.

At the end of eight years, you need 'new impetus', says de Waart, who is also the music director of Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. 'If it isn't there, while I love this orchestra dearly, I need to go somewhere else. They need to bring in somebody new.'

The orchestra's role in promoting the city as a regional arts hub, particularly in opening a new concert hall planned for the West Kowloon Cultural District, is a sore point. De Waart sees this as a chance to build a more muscular ensemble with bigger string and woodwind sections and strong soloists who will draw music lovers from around the world.

'What is so sorely missing in the whole Hong Kong arts outlook is that, while we are thankful for government support, I have never felt they wanted to go with us,' de Waart says.

'Every world city has a first-rate orchestra. We might have a good orchestra, but it might never be up there if you don't support it.'

Another issue that irks him is a HK$10 million cut in funding in 2002 in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. Yet even after the economy rebounded, de Waart learned from a top official that the orchestra would never get it back.

He points to San Francisco to illustrate the difference - a richly cultured city with a very good opera, an excellent symphony orchestra, great conservatory and some very good theatre, despite being a medium-sized American city.

'Is that too much to ask? We are way richer than San Francisco. You give taxes back. Just give it to the arts or arts education. Give it to Academy for Performing Arts, they are struggling ... Give it to us, then we can compete on the level of international orchestras,' he says.

But observers such as Chow Fan-fu, an influential music critic, say additional funding may just attract a more mercenary style of musician rather than improve the performing standards.

'An orchestra will not mature if there is a high turnover of players. The turnover rate will remain high if there isn't a strong sense of belonging,' Chow says. 'I suspect that is the fundamental problem of the HKPO, including Edo himself, who I think did not see himself as a member of Hong Kong society.'

De Waart concedes turnover is a major concern. His principal trumpet and bassoon, the co-principal horn, cor anglais and some string players will be leaving at the end of the season in July, for instance. Nevertheless, the maestro says the orchestra has made great strides over the past six years, becoming a more cohesive ensemble.

'When I [first] came, there were glaring weaknesses; nobody was listening to one another. It was a free for all ... I said to myself: 'Oh my God, how is this possible?'

'Through luck, a little pushing now and then, we now have a group of good, solid people, who work well together and listen to each other. Our violins are a lot better, the woodwinds are much more solid, and the brass are doing fairly well.'

Although still a young orchestra, the musicians have performed 'unbelievably well', especially in the recent BeethovenFest programme. The orchestra 'is absolutely on schedule' to becoming a top ensemble, de Waart says, and is even ahead in some ways.

He ranks the orchestra currently among the top middle-tier orchestras in the world, and says it could eventually become one of the 40 or 50 outstanding ensembles.

'We are getting to a place where I feel that, whoever my successor is, I will hand over a very healthy orchestra.'

Few would dispute that de Waart, the first international heavyweight to lead the orchestra, has given the overall performance an extraordinary lift. Savio Lau Chi-kong, editor of HiFi Review Monthly, describes the present troupe as the most cohesive yet.

The orchestra's chairman, Y.S. Liu, goes so far as to consider recommending that de Waart be conferred a medal for his contributions to Hong Kong. But dissonance quickly arises when the turns to performing full operas in concert.

De Waart regards such productions as crucial to the further growth of the orchestra, and, since taking over, has staged one opera every season - including Strauss's Salome and Elektra, Puccini's Madama Butterfly and Beethoven's Fidelio. Lee Ou-fan, a retired academic and keen arts observer, says the operas have boosted the playing to the level of a top-notch orchestra.

The maestro was predictably upset when management cancelled his plans for a production of Eugene Onegin to close the 2011 season. 'A terrible shame that makes me sad.'

Although he understands de Waart's disappointment, chairman Liu says they must answer to the board. Operas are very costly productions and they lost HK$2 million each on Salome and Elektra, and another HK$1 million with Madama Butterfly. That's why 'we came to an agreement last year to stage one production every two years', he says.

Senior musicians had also expressed reservations about the opera concerts, Liu says, worrying that the losses might deprive them of a possible salary raise.

At heart, the chill in relations between de Waart and his board lies in divergent approaches to running the orchestra, says Lau. 'Edo strives for the best performing conditions, such as the cast of soloists. 'Second best' is never an option for him. It's all or none. So at the end it's none.'

This is illustrated in their disagreement over how to strike a balance between presenting popular programmes and material that challenges musicianship.

De Waart reckons the board is overly concerned with ensuring that concerts can pay for themselves and therefore constantly plump for safe choices. 'But selling tickets is not always important for a subsidised orchestra,' he says. 'For a big romantic symphony orchestra that can already play Mahler way better than any orchestra in Asia, you have to make plans [to build the repertoire and nurture talent]. But it has been almost impossible to get board members behind it.'

A proposal to present the music of 20th century composer Arnold Schoenberg, for example, would elicit queries as to whether it would sell. 'This is not how you build an orchestra,' de Waart says.

Despite his disagreements with the board and government officials, the conductor says that's not why he's leaving. 'Every relationship has a curve. I feel that my natural curve with the orchestra is eight years. I don't think it's too long or too short. We got a lot done. We are not fighting. I'm not fleeing town. Nobody is kicking me out.

'In my personal life, my kids are my absolute No1 priority. That's why we are moving to Antwerp.'

As for how he would remember his Hong Kong experience, the maestro would only say, 'Ask me in a couple of years.'