It's been a boil waiting to burst,' a source within Hong Kong Philharmonic said luridly this week, of the simmering resentment of many musicians towards management, that has festered for years. Late last week matters came to a head when members of the orchestra signed substantially altered contracts under protest, passed a vote of no confidence in management by 76 per cent - 22 per cent were absent - and considered possible legal action. 'No one will thank me for saying it,' said a Philharmonic musician this week. 'But for a long time we've been our own worst enemies. In the good times, we just took the money. We didn't fight what was going on.' The players' union disbanded 'through apathy' years ago. There is now talk of it being reformed. There were signs of disharmony in January, when new two-year contracts are usually offered to the 93 players, for signing in February. But the contract was a no-show. By the beginning of February, players were still in the dark, and worried. 'That's been one of the worst things - not knowing what was going on,' said one. Philip Kwok, acting chairman of the Philharmonic's General Committee, called a meeting just before Lunar New Year. He explained a big question mark hung over financial support from the Government, which inherited responsibility for the orchestra when the Urban and Regional councils were abolished last year. A week later contracts arrived. They came as a big shock to Southeast Asia's most prestigious orchestra. Radical changes included: Annual bonus scrapped. Less generous provident fund provision. Annual $60,000 housing allowance scrapped. First four days' sick leave unpaid. Rehearsal breaks reduced, allowing 2.5 hours' uninterrupted play. Restricted insurance for players' instruments. Management said the Philharmonic - which receives the largest public funding of any Hong Kong arts body - had annual funding of around $69 million in 1998/99 cut to an anticipated $64 million and next season would sustain a further cut as part of the Government's Enhancement of Productivity Programme (EPP). This had left a $11.6 million deficit, while the cutbacks in benefits were expected to save $5.3 million within the next year. Sixty per cent of expenditure is reportedly spent on salaries. 'What we have told the Philharmonic is that we will continue to support them at the current level,' said Choi Suk-kuen, deputy director (culture) of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. 'But the EPP has affected all bodies. We hope members of the public can understand that.' Confirmed finances must wait for the March 8 presentation of the Budget to Legco. In a written statement to the Post this week Mr Choi said: 'The Philharmonic Orchestra has been riding some very rough waters for the past few years,' but would have funding cut by seven per cent over the three years up to 2001. By the end of the current one year contract, next August, the orchestra's budget deficit would have increased to $15.7 million, he said. 'Regarding the non-cash related changes made in the players' contracts, these have been considered and fully discussed for some time by the previous and current general committees. The changes were entirely conceived for the [Philharmonic] to become more productive and competitive in the market, gaining flexibility in scheduling and establishing better regulation in the Orchestra. These will certainly help the Orchestra expand its income and audience bases.' He pointed out that the players on average worked 18-20.5 hours, and only 44-45 weeks a year with eight weeks fully-paid annual leave. Management also said salaries before benefits were between $28,930 and $51,740 per month. Musicians insisted that the changes, although not affecting cash payments, meant effective cuts of up to 26 per cent. They asked for more time to consider signing the contracts. Music director David Atherton was out of the SAR and Samuel Wong, the music director-designate, is based in New York and will not take over until September - though he has expressed a desire for more consultation with the players. The musicians formed a committee and when requests to meet management were rebuffed they consulted lawyers. 'The players didn't feel management was on their side,' said a source. 'They felt they had hidden the real conditions of the contract in earlier talks. All these provisions, yet the players weren't given a clue. 'Everyone knew the Philharmonic received an enormous subsidy and that the economy was bad. We know there may be little sympathy in the end about package cuts. But management had no vision. They had just sat back and waited to see what happened after the Urban and Regional councils were scrapped. Anyone could have foreseen these consequences.' There was resentment too that the contract contained 19 changes in all, many of which were nothing to do with money. And that little private sponsorship had been sought to offset any loss of income to the music group since the announcement of the scrapping of the councils. They also pointed out that management suffered no significant cutbacks. The Philharmonic has a staff of 27, and many made the comparison with the London Symphony Orchestra, run by the musicians and a staff of four. 'We don't fundraise, though we've asked to often enough,' said a player. 'When funds get cut, we all know we have to cover that. If you don't fundraise, you've eliminated the biggest reason for management. 'It isn't that we're the good guys and they're the bad guys,' the player added. 'It's that they didn't inform us and they don't seem to have looked ahead.' But in the end the musicians signed last Saturday. 'What else were we going to do?' a player said. 'They absolutely would not alter the signing date. And we don't just walk into another job. It would mean relocating to another country, a lot of training. Also a lot of players were local, their alternative was grim.' This week, while talking to lawyers, the musicians sent General Manager Edith Lei a letter complaining of 'negligible information presented to the players and a basic lack of understanding towards the requirements and needs of musicians expected to always perform at their best on the concert platform'. How is the mood within the orchestra now? 'Lethal at the moment,' said one player. 'What would anyone be thinking if you had long-term job security taken away suddenly?' said another. 'What we don't understand are the issues like sick pay and how many hours we have to play. These are serious issues for us, with tendonitis a problem for players. Why did they have to change working conditions now? Why take money from people calling in sick? Are things so bad we really need to save that extra tiny amount?' The Arts page is edited by Amanda Watson.