Security was tight. Ticket-holders had to pass through metal detectors so sensitive that one ambassadorial type removed his belt to show there was nothing hidden in the buckle. No handbags allowed in, and the only mobile phones were to be in the hands of the police. This was no political meeting in a war zone, but the first public concert of the China National Symphony Orchestra in Beijing last Friday night. The guest of honour was President Jiang Zemin and his entourage of guests and guards. In addition to the police who were creating road blocks in the area, there were at least 300 security staff in and around the modern Century Hall in the northeast sector of the city. Some were dressed in the familiar khaki uniforms; others were in evening jackets, only their walkie talkies, purposeful expressions and lack of interest in the programme betrayed their occupation. It created a certain sense of surrealism, and a sense that this high profile ensemble of Chinese musicians playing Western music is seen by the state as an important symbol, whether of international detente, or of national excellence. And it certainly provides excellent metaphors: people working together in harmony; bringing music to the people; valuing interdependence; China's pride. This is at the same time a brand new and a 40-year-old orchestra. The CNSO is built on the ashes of the old Central Philharmonic. Half the players were Central Philharmonic musicians: the others have been recruited from around China. The problem, as conductor Chen Zuohuang and many others have said in the past, was that the 'iron rice bowl' was leading to complacency. With promise of life tenure, the musicians lacked the edge and tautness, that is so important in the making of music the country could be proud of. They used to moonlight, sometimes missing concerts because they were performing in a hotel quartet. In this new group, according to Chen, there are strict auditions and contracts of between three years and one year (many of the national and international award-winning musicians are less willing to offer long-term commitments to an orchestra that has not yet earned its reputation). Having a principal position is not a lifetime guarantee, and it is also not the privilege of the older musicians, only the better ones. 'This is the only way we can be good,' he said. The first public notes of the new national orchestra were, appropriately, the national anthem. Every musician stood up to play, save the cellists who would have had to hunch over their instruments. This apparently was not a concession to the presidential presence, but normal practice. The programme started at a cracking pace with a sprightly rendition of Shostakovich's Festive Overture, and continued, on a nationalistic theme, with a 1960s composition by Chen Peixun , Ode to Snow. This is a moody, exquisite piece, patriotically evocative of northern winter woodlands. It was an appropriate start, not only because it is Chinese - the composer was born on the mainland but has lived in Hong Kong for years - but because it gives individual voice to the orchestra's principals: violin, clarinet, french horn and others. The usual joke with Chinese orchestras is that their brass sections are dreadful - string sections are always nurtured - but in this piece the horns rang out with a clarity that gave good hope for the orchestra's future as a leading force in Western classical music in Asia. The rest of the programme included Beethoven's Fantasia for piano, chorus and orchestra - with the chorus of the CNSO, and talented 14-year-old pianist Lang Lang - and Brahms Symphony No 1 in C minor. Extraordinarily, the performance was played without an interval, despite the programme notes. Which meant that as Dr Chen started the Brahms Symphony the audience was already stretching and preparing to shuffle out for a break. The last-minute change was made for security reasons: an interval with people milling about would have been a bodyguard's nightmare. When he arrived later at a dinner given by the concert's Hong Kong sponsors, Dr Chen looked tired but pleased. This was especially so after receiving personal encouragement from Mr Jiang - who spends his spare time playing the piano and Chinese instruments, and takes a keen interest in Western music and opera. 'The orchestra's performance was not totally perfect,' Dr Chen said, citing the musical balance of the instruments as needing improvement. 'But this is a new group, and a new hope. It has a great potential but you have to give it two or three years to develop. We are only two months in.' He said that almost a third of the musicians are competition winners. 'When people like that come together they need time to develop a mutual understanding, to play like members of an ensemble rather than like soloists.' It had been an exhausting six months, he said. Not only did he organise tough auditions for Chinese musicians from around the world, but he was heavily involved in the promotion of the orchestra. The Chinese Government pays salaries, owns the concert hall, provides the instruments, 'but it is such an expensive thing to maintain a good orchestra, we really need some help from outside', Dr Chen said. The CNSO has some big names behind it, including Northern Telecom, Cafe de Colombia, China BAT, Tropicana, General Motors, Boeing and the Shanghai Stock Exchange. Hong Kong support is being recruited with strong support from entrepreneur Annie Wu. By last week there were 87 full-time players in the orchestra: with about 20 seats waiting to be filled. 'We are waiting until we find good enough people: we don't want to compromise.' In the past month, Dr Chen has auditioned musicians from the United States and Singapore: all prepared to take jobs at much lower salaries. He would not reveal the pay of the orchestra's musicians, but from other sources it seems they are at least seven times the salaries of musicians in regional orchestras, who earn about US$100 (HK$780) a month in the non-principal positions. However, it is hard to equate earnings with those of musicians overseas, Dr Chen insists. 'In America you just get a salary. In China you get housing, healthcare, a pension plan, instruments and even your concert clothes thrown in as well. So it's not the same.' Many older performers in China have stayed with one orchestra: they have enjoyed 'life tenure' since the larger ensembles regrouped after the Cultural Revolution. But the next generation of musicians have tended to move around more during their shorter careers. For example, in just 10 years, the principal horn player has played with the Chinese Youth Orchestra, the Chinese Army Orchestra, the Ballet Orchestra, the Central Opera Ensemble, the Beijing Symphony and now the Chinese National orchestra. Assistant concert-master Chen Yu is an example of the new guard that has been brought in to the CNSO. Like many of his colleagues he was trained in top conservatories - in Sydney and Beijing Central - and has worked all over the world. He is coming back to China (dividing his time with a residential position in Macau) from choice rather than necessity. The trumpet and flute principals were recruited from the US, Chen Yu said, where they have been living for more than 10 years; other principals - including the clarinettist who is just 22 - have just graduated, and had the opportunity of moving overseas. After only 38 days of rehearsals together, the orchestra made their first recording: perhaps the first time that a CD has been made by a professional full-time orchestra before its debut performance. The limited edition gold recording of Chen Peixun's Ode to Snow, Brahms' Symphony No 1 and an arrangement by Wu Zuqiang of Moon Reflect on Second Fountain is being released by Philips Digital Classics in Hong Kong tomorrow. Last Friday's concert began the first ever full orchestral concert season in China. With the hundreds of regional orchestras in China, concert planning has always been a rather ad hoc affair, with little long-term planning. The first CNSO concert season will not be its best, Dr Chen predicted. This season's concert series has been set up in just six months: almost every other orchestra in the world is already looking at the 1998 season, while soloists and conductors for 1996 were booked two years ago. 'There is a lot of help and goodwill involved. But with all of that, and some good musicians, we have achieved the impossible. 'I hope we will continue to do so.'