MOST OF THE CAPACITY crowd inside Paris' famed Theatre de Champs Elysees had no idea what to expect when they bought tickets to last week's Hong Kong Philharmonic's concert, the orchestra's final stop on an Asia-Europe tour. One couple came because they were curious to see a 'Hong Kong prodigy', 12-year-old Mark Lung, perform. Another wanted to hear Busoni's Turandot Suite, a piece rarely performed live in Europe, where Puccini's version is usually favoured. Certainly, few who cheered the Phil at the end of their performance would have known that the 89 members and their conductor, Samuel Wong, had stepped off the plane only two hours earlier, and performed without rehearsal and on empty stomachs. The evening turned out to be a dramatic and emotional end for the troupe's most ambitious and gruelling tour. Like marathon runners pushing themselves to the limit, the musicians played as one and delivered their finest music under artistic director Wong's baton. As one member jokingly put it, 'We've got a strong proletarian spirit.' It was perhaps that determination that carried the ensemble through the eight-city whirlwind tour, with performances in Macau, Seoul, Pusan, Kwangju, London, Belfast, Dublin and Paris in less than two weeks. Wong, who took the reins of the Phil three years ago and masterminded the extensive tour - a first for the orchestra - has no qualms admitting that a lot was riding on it for him and the musicians. 'I think touring is the most important stimulus for the orchestra,' he says. 'It gives them exposure to a large market place and they are pitted against other cities, they play in new places, in front of new people and most importantly, when they are appreciated it boosts their pride.' He adds: 'It's all about money; it's hard to pull something like this together.' While donations by corporations and the Ladies Committee of the Philharmonic helped cover the $5 million cost of the door, together with ticket sales and performance fees paid by several venues, the project was still risky. 'Some players wonder why we can't get an extra day between concerts so they can get some rest,' Wong says. 'It would simply cost too much. We are talking about putting up a hundred people for an extra night; my goal is to get them the chance to play at some of Europe's most famous halls.' From the start, it took more than just shrewd practicality to make the tour a reality. 'Everything has been hanging in the balance. If one flight gets delayed it could cost us a concert,' explains Edith Lei Mei-lon, the orchestra's general manager. For Wong's part, it was creating the programme that would sell seats. His selection was a mix of East meets West, almost like an 'orchestral variety show', featuring the Turandot Suite, Mozart's Piano Concerto No 20 in D Minor performed by Helen Huang, Hong Kong composer John Chen Kuo-ping's Dragon Wings No 4, featuring the father-and-son percussion team of Lung Heung-wing and Mark, and something romantic - Dvorak's Sixth Symphony. Macau and South Korea comprised a breezy part of the tour, thanks to the lack of jetlag and relatively enthusiastic crowds in Seoul and Pusan. But the European leg tested the troupe's stamina. After the orchestra arrived at Heathrow Airport at 7am on February 26 following a long-haul flight, most members were forced to wander the city for six hours because their rooms were not yet available. The following morning saw a photocall and rehearsals at London's Barbican Centre, which has hosted some of the finest orchestras in the world. The acoustics of the venue are fantastic but the mahogany-hued hall is also a tough place to play, with a sophisticated audience spoiled by the hall's usually stellar line-up. That evening, while Home Affairs Secretary Patrick Ho Chi-ping entertained nearly 300 guests on behalf of the SAR's trade office in London, local reviewers, while impressed with Dragon Wings, were vicious in their commentary, especially regarding Huang's rendition of Mozart. The next destination, Belfast, was the lowest point of the tour. Pouring rain greeted orchestra members, who arrived in the city with little sleep from the night before, owing to their 5am wake-up call. That night, only a thin crowd turned up at Belfast's Waterfront Hall. Although the orchestra played with conviction, it was obvious from Wong's quickened tempo that he, like the rest of the ensemble, was eager to move on. 'I think the test of a leader is how he leads in defeat, not in victory,' Wong says of the Belfast concert. 'We all had to ride it through, and everyone played like the professionals they are.' If the orchestra appeared discouraged the next morning on their coach ride to Dublin, it didn't rub off on the youngest member of the tour. Mark clearly relished every moment of the journey, helping his parents look after 12 pieces of luggage and finding time to do his homework. As for Japan-born Huang, 20, a student at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, the tour provided a rare opportunity to mix closely with the orchestra, something of a rarity for travelling soloists. 'You usually just get into a city, perform and leave,' says Huang. 'This time it's different. It's tiring but you really get to know the musicians you perform with.' There was a marked improvement in the troupe's morale after their arrival in Dublin. Although the Dublin National Concert Hall stage was a tight fit for the musicians, something about the hall's soothing sage colour and cosy atmosphere indicated things were about to change. Wong only ran the musicians through a short sound test because 'you want them to just sharpen their reflexes but not exhaust them so they lose momentum at the concert'. The full-house crowd was elated by the Busoni piece and the novelty of Dragon Wings No 4. Dublin's lively pub scene also served as a fitting backdrop for the ensemble, who partied well into the morning. When the musicians arrived at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, their last stop, most were still elated about the Dublin performance. Meanwhile, the orchestra's management silently worried because tickets had not sold well. The weather was horrible and owing to a traffic jam, there was no time to rehearse. For many, it was straight to the concert hall after unpacking. But about an hour before the concert, there was a sudden rush for seats, with so many people queueing at the box office of the Theatre de Champs Elysees that the starting time had to be pushed back 10 minutes. The plush red hall filled up quickly and if the London critics had been there, perhaps they would have been more charitable. The orchestra dived into Busoni and delivered the Asian-inspired musical score with flair and savvy. People took out binoculars and watched the flurry of hands that flew between xylophones and drums, and were visibly taken by Mark's presence. One concert-goer said: 'We had heard excerpts of Dragon Wings No 4 on the radio this week and thought it was such an interesting piece of music.' Another person gave the thumbs-up when Huang finished the Mozart. By the encore, most people were nodding their heads to the beat of Slavic Dance. As for Wong, the conclusion of the tour is another sign that even during what's been dubbed as the orchestra's most controversial year - with a reshuffling of the board of directors and player discontent - he is determined to succeed. 'I don't care about anything that's happening around me any more. Music is a zero sum game and that's the only thing I have on my mind. I've experienced a fantastic revelation - I think the majority of the orchestra are very responsible and good people.'