Ten thousand Hong Kong music-lovers appear to have been duped by a group of musicians masquerading as the famous Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO). Near sell-out crowds packed a series of performances last month by what they thought was the famous Russian ensemble - but the 'real' MPO insists what they saw was a group of freelance Russian musicians. Thousands of people paid up to $240 to attend the annual Midsummer Classics 2000 shows between August 7 and 13 at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre and Tuen Mun and Tsuen Wan town halls. But the real orchestra's principal guest conductor, Dimitri Yablonsky, said the MPO was playing in Europe at the time. 'It is a huge scandal in Moscow, very upsetting,' he said. 'It takes years to set up an orchestra, then some pick-up orchestra suddenly comes along and says they are the MPO. The MPO musicians still don't seem to know what happened - well they couldn't because they were on tour at the time.' The orchestra's agents, Artistic Agency Sovinart (Moscow), also insisted it was not in Hong Kong for the concerts. Sovinart's general director, Eilina Tikhomirova, said the concerts were performed by an ad-hoc orchestra. Yesterday, the Government's Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which promoted the concerts, said it had written to Wave Motion, the Hong Kong agents who booked the orchestra, seeking clarification. The department also contacted Mak Ka-lok, the Hong Kong-born conductor who led this year's Midsummer Classics, for an explanation. It was Mr Mak who introduced the musicians to the department, said its senior manager (music), Linus Fung. She said he had promised a letter from the MPO confirming it had played here. 'We are really concerned about this issue,' Ms Fung said, adding that the department was worried about the potentially huge demand for refunds. But she said it was unfair to say the musicians were definitely not the MPO until they had received a reply from the agents. 'If you receive proposals from a very renowned orchestra, you would not doubt that it was actually that group,' Ms Fung said. She said her department had cross-checked the biographies of the musicians with those they received when the MPO played here in 1993 and they tallied. 'Of course we have a responsibility to ensure the orchestra we promote is the real orchestra. But under the information we received, we had no doubts,' she said. Mr Yablonsky said the orchestra appeared at the Menton Festival in France from August 6 to 8, in Lisbon from August 9 to 12, and at the Llivia Festival in Spain on August 13. He insisted that whoever was responsible knew exactly what they were doing and finding musicians to play under the MPO's name would not have been difficult. 'There are a lot of musicians out of work in Moscow; there would be plenty of players willing to do this.' Mrs Tikhomirova said there was no possibility of the Hong Kong players being a second-string group formed from within the MPO. 'The MPO never permits itself to play as more than one group,' she said. The MPO, regarded as one of the three main orchestras in Russia, is reportedly trying to arrange a tour of Asia, which players feel could now be compromised, said Mr Yablonsky.