To symbolise its quest for international status, Shenzhen, already China's largest special economic zone (SEZ), decided to create a world-class symphony orchestra capable of making music which matches the zone's undoubted economic success. That was the goal the SEZ's policy-makers set themselves two years ago when they mapped out an ambitious scheme to improve local cultural life by changing the Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra's management and setting high musical standards. One result has been the construction of a large concert hall, part of a two billion yuan (HK$1.8 billion) civic centre due to be completed in 2001. Officials last year began to turn the Shenzhen orchestra into a cultural icon of China's economic progress by giving it professional management. A full-time general manager and a music director now run the show, a job previously held by the in-house Communist Party committee secretary. The new music director, Zhang Guoyong, who has a doctorate in conducting from the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, began his tenure by holding a mandatory audition for all the orchestra members he inherited. Dr Zhang clearly meant business. Ten per cent of the players lost their positions instantly and, with approval from the city's cultural bureau, he then flew to St Petersburg and signed up four young Russian musicians. 'The morale has turned around and the musicians have become serious about their work, even at rehearsals,' said Dong Xiaoming, a senior cultural official. This attitude was apparent at a rehearsal before a concert last month. An honorary guest conductor from Beijing, Maestro Li Delun, 82, took the players through Tchaikovsky's Fifth with no sign of fatigue. Dr Zhang and Chen Chuansong, the orchestra's general manager, watched intently during the session. At one point the orchestra failed in three bids to strike a chord correctly before the fourth movement's conclusion, prompting players to debate the cause. Dr Zhang stepped up to the rostrum to consult Maestro Li and young concertmaster, Clef Dontsov, 26. In Russian, all three debated the score. Under the joint guidance of both maestros, the players' next try worked. As they joyously dashed towards the finale after the trumpet lead, Mr Li waved, saying: 'See you tonight.' Yet despite all these efforts, attendance at the concerts continues to be a problem. 'I think we are on the right track,' said Mr Chen. 'We still need to do more revamping. The audience, too, needs time to realise they have a first-rate ensemble right in their city.' The all-Tchaikovsky concert on April 24 featured a popular repertoire - Marche Slav, the First Piano Concerto and the Fifth Symphony - and played to a full house. However, many of those in the 719-seat Shenzhen Theatre were young children accompanied by parents. The bustle of children running around the hall and the ringing of mobile phones detracted from the highly professional performance. Despite the orchestra's dedication to the arts, it is not completely immune from politics. In a preview article, the official Shenzhen Special Zone Daily commented: 'At a time when the Yugoslav people are suffering from the pangs of war, let us once again listen to Tchaikovsky's support for the Serbians. Marche Slav was written in 1876 when Turkey invaded Serbia.' Asked if he chose the piece because of Kosovo, Dr Zhang shook his head in disbelief and asked: 'Is that what the daily said?'