2012 may well prove to be a pivotal year in the landscape of orchestral music in south east Asia with two of the region’s principal orchestra adopting very different approaches to their artistic future.
His appointment caused huge surprise amongst all those who didn’t know the full story. Why was such a highly-respected conductor allowing his name and reputation to be associated with a lame duck orchestra? Was it that, approaching retirement, he saw it as a sinecure to while away his spare time before finally handing in his baton? More cruelly, one player who had worked under him in the Netherlands asked, “Has he lost his reason?” We could not see how even such a respected conductor could turn around something which was anathema to most Hong Kongers.
Now he has decided to leave the HKPO and fellow Dutchman Jaap van Zweden has been appointed his successor. This is an exciting and inspired appointment for it not only brings another outstanding international conductor on to the rostrum who will, I suspect, quickly place his own stamp on the programming and range of the orchestra’s performances, but is clearly a sign that they wish to continue and build on de Waart’s legacy. While some incoming music directors elsewhere have almost gone out of their way to expunge the legacy of their predecessors, one is confident that van Zweden will not do this. And, as such, the future for the HKPO looks not just assured but exciting as well.
On top of that came the abysmal performance of the then CEO who failed spectacularly to respond to political and social criticism of the orchestra’s ethnic makeup (“Why call it the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra when there aren’t any Malaysians in it?” was the appallingly stupid clarion call of the lunatic fringe who took to MPO-bashing). Instead of the obvious answer – “We provide the best for Malaysians, not the best of Malaysians” – she capitulated and hastened the orchestra’s decline by promising to bring in local players. Since its creation in 1998 the MPO had been the first and only professional orchestra in Malaysia, so there was no pool of good local professionals to fill the seats, and while Bamert pressed for the creation of a youth orchestra to build up such a pool, he failed to realise that the Mad Mahathir’s inane “Malaysia Boleh” sound-bite meant that all Malaysians believed that if you said something, it was immediately fact. Even before the MPYO had struck up a note, people were suggesting they could go straight into empty seats within the MPO.
A decade ago, the Hong Kong Philharmonic looked to be on its beam ends, artistically, financially and socially. Five years after the handover to China, it seemed as if this was a dying vestige of colonial occupation, an entertainment for the dwindling numbers of aging British expats and a home for musicians who had either failed to secure decent jobs in orchestras outside Asia or who had lost the ambition to move on. More than one pundit predicted that the HKPO was on the path to becoming a part-time band, calling in students to boost the dwindling numbers of professionals for occasional concerts. Then along came Edo de Waart.
|Edo de Waart with the HKPO|
But, of course, the appointment of Edo de Waart as Chief Conductor in 2004 transformed the HKPO. He brought in experienced foreign players who knew and appreciated his methods, he revolutionised the programming to bring great mainstays of the repertoire back to centre stage and place them alongside new and adventurous works, he introduced opera in concert and a whole host of other ideas which suddenly turned Hong Kong into an attractive destination for music-lovers. He chose not to go down the path of recordings and international tours, which might have brought the orchestra more to prominence overseas, but instead built up the audience at home. He didn’t go the way of so many and, looking at the greying hairs and balding pates of his audience, strive to drive them away in preference for the younger generation. He understood that it is the mature who have both the disposable income and the time management skills to populate a concert hall, and he built up an audience base of dedicated and committed Hong Kongers, keen, possibly, to be seen as part of the wealthy elite, not always immaculately behaved by western standards, but undeniably enthusiastic and loyal to the orchestra. He didn’t ignore the young, and encouraged the HKPO to go out and about to schools and to involve itself in pioneering educational projects which have brought classical music into the lives of a very large number of Hong Kong students. But he realised that, pressures of growing careers and growing families make concert-going an impossible dream for those of a certain age, so had no shame in gearing the mainstream concerts to those who so often get pushed aside in the pointless pursuit of attracting youth.
|Jaap van Zweden|
Compare that with what has happened to the Malaysian Philharmonic.Last week it decided to axe several key players, among them fine musicians who had been with the orchestra since its inception and who are, in their way, almost as iconic a feature of the MPO as the building in which they perform. Their departure, along with a growing list of key players who have resigned or left when contracts have expired, is leaving a very desiccated orchestra; a miserable ghost of what it once was. Of course, any orchestra is far more than any single individual, be it a CEO, a musical director or a rank and file second violinist, but such wholesale cuts of valuable personnel sends out a very worrying signal as to the future of this once great orchestra.
|The MPO in the Bamert era|
Again going back a decade, it’s almost inconceivable how the MPO has changed. In 2002 it was riding high on the crest of a wave, hailed by many pundits as not just the finest orchestra in Asia but potentially one of the world’s great orchestras. After a spectacularly successful collaboration with the BBC Symphony in the only BBC Proms to have been franchised outside the UK, serious discussions took place about how soon the MPO could be invited to London to perform and broadcast there. One British critic attending the KL BBC Proms suggested that a “cigarette paper” separated the quality of the MPO from that of the BBCSO. And then it all went wrong.
The MPO has always suffered from unusually inept management. If the management understood the orchestra, it didn’t understand the Malaysians, and vice versa. To be fair it’s not an easy task for, along with the obvious problems of a perceived “western” art form being housed in the east, there is the added complication of the influence of Islam which, in Malaysia, tends to consider classical music as anti-religious. But even so, huge mistakes were made. Experts in the management office were replaced by time servers, and it has long been a standing joke amongst the orchestral community that none of the key management staff of the MPO have ever attended a classical music concert. Indeed, there is a famous story about how a Marketing Manager actually confessed on radio in the US that he didn’t actually like music. On top of that, the musicians themselves have often failed to understand the sensitivities involved and have done themselves no favours by boorish and insensitive conduct. All this came to a head and set the MPO on the downwards spiral that has continued with only occasional interruptions for the past seven years when founding music director, Kees Bakels, announced his decision to step down. In retrospect, it was a premature decision, but at the time, it was handled so utterly catastrophically that the orchestra has never recovered. A high profile appointment as successor made an even higher profile departure before ever picking up the baton, and Bakels returned as a stop-gap while management looked desperately around for a replacement. When, eventually, Matthias Bamert was appointed, morale was so low, confidence among players so weak and the climate so hostile, that he was unable to mend the fences that needed to be mended.
|Kees Bakels - |
MPO Founding Music Director
And that is probably what is going to happen now. Professional, qualified and experienced players replaced by students whose enthusiasm is not matched by their competence. An orchestra which, instead of fulfilling the late, great Tan Sri Azizan’s dream of showing the world how Malaysia could attract the very best, shows the world how it as a land where native mediocrity is celebrated as the ultimate ideal.I have a proven track record in getting predictions wrong, so I hope that I live up to my reputation in part here; while I really hope the HKPO will go from strength to strength under Jaap van Zweden, I earnestly hope that the MPO will pick itself up and resume its place among the great orchestras of the world. Asia needs great orchestras and it needs great people to manage, direct, play in and listen to them.