05 July 2021

A Tale of Three Orchestras


On June 30th I officially retired from my post as senior lecturer at the National University of Singapore, ending a close involvement with the musical life of south-east Asia stretching back almost four decades.  I had actually left Singapore over a year earlier, driven out by increasingly rigorous Coronavirus measures, so my official departure was not as heart-breaking as it might have been: I had loved my job and was distressed to be obliged to leave it because of the unfortunate accident of age.  I had loved south-east Asia even more, and the prospect that I will no longer be playing a part in the rich fabric of its musical life is still something that fills me with sadness.


While I had begun my life in Asia in an educational institution, and ended it in another, my Asian sojourn was predominantly occupied with orchestras.  During those decades I spent in south-east Asia, I worked closely with three different orchestras in three different countries, and saw one of them grow from a mediocre band into one of the world’s great orchestras, another develop from a small group of a few dozen instrumentalists into a fully-fledged symphony orchestra but which now feels to have stagnated – not moving onwards, but not moving backwards either, and a third, springing into life as one of the truly great orchestras of the world, and ending up as a dishevelled rag tag band of disheartened session players.  I would say that all three boast many brilliant and passionately dedicated players, and all three have worked under some inspirational conductors; what has led to their different fates is their administration and management.


The Hong Kong Philharmonic

Spending some time teaching organ at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts in the mid-1980s, I got to know the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and, in my capacity as a music critic for both newspapers and radio, I had more than an audience-member’s interest in the ensemble.  I reported on the opening, in 1989, of the Cultural Arts Centre, which was to become the performing home of the HK Phil, and reviewed several of the orchestra’s early concerts there.  I became its programme annotator somewhere around the turn of the century, and a few years later, after I had relocated to Singapore, was appointed its English Editor. I had seen it struggle to survive after the Handover, teetering on the brink of reduction to a small amateur band, I saw it revive under the inspirational Edo de Waart, and have been continually amazed by its progress to world-class ensemble under the directorship of Jaap van Zweden.  Two years ago, the orchestra completed an amazingly ambitious project to perform and record the entire Ring Cycle for Naxos.  The live recordings were excellent and warranted the orchestra receiving a nomination for Orchestra of the Year at the 2019 Gramophone Awards. 


At that point, the quality of its management team was put to the test.  Many orchestras get nominated, but only one gets chosen; and, unlike other Gramophone Awards, the Orchestra of the Year is voted on exclusively by the public.  An aggressive marketing campaign, run by the HK Phil’s tireless and committed marketing team and encouraged by a dedicated and intelligent management, ensured that most people in Hong Kong, and a great many elsewhere, not only knew about the nomination, but were encouraged to cast their votes; I do not recall ever having seen such a hard-pitched campaign to secure a musical award before, but it worked.  The Orchestra won the award, and in so doing became the first Asian orchestra ever to achieve that accolade.  Over the last months, when the pandemic has played havoc worldwide with musical performances (and Hong Kong had the additional issues of some serious civil disturbances last year), the management of the orchestra and its marketing team have worked ceaselessly to find ways of keeping the orchestra’s profile in the public eye, and with adventurous ideas about remote performances, and a whole raft of clever marketing strategies, the HK Phil has not only survived the pressures, but is coming out even stronger today.  Back in the 1980s, and especially after the Handover in 1997, questions were raised about the “relevance” of a western symphony orchestra in a Chinese city, but, again, good marketing and determined management, brushed those aside, and the level of local support for the Orchestra never fails to impress me.  It is a very fine orchestra, musically; but brilliant management ensures everybody knows and believes this.


My first ever venture into south east Asia was as an examiner for the ABRSM.  A mammoth tour – lasting from May to December 1985 – found me spending three months in a Singapore hotel just a stone’s throw from the Victoria Concert Hall.  After an eternity of hearing candidates struggle their way through the early grade pianos (any other instrument was unheard of in the 1980s) I needed a dose of professional orchestral music and so I went to a concert given by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.  A desultory, depressing, and dreadful experience, which an examiner colleague described (harshly and not entirely fairly) as a “miserable bunch of disaffected expat players under a talentless conductor”, I recall a surly band of uninspired players performing uninspiring repertory under the baton of an uninspiring conductor.  I had thought my early experience of the HK Phil was bad; this was far, far worse.  A sprinkling of an audience gave it lacklustre support and rushed off after the concert as if being released from captivity.  In 1997, at which time I was living in Singapore, I renewed my acquaintance with the orchestra, and was conscious of signs of improvement.  A new music director was on the way, and a new concert hall just waiting for the Asian currency crash to recover, was promised.  I was asked to write some material for the orchestra, I became its programme annotator, and worked on a history of the orchestra for a book to be published to mark its 25th anniversary in 2004.  The new music director turned the orchestra round and increased its strength, while the concert hall had a revolutionary effect on it.  Playing standards exploded through the roof, and it began to attract a very sizeable audience, albeit mostly comprising transitory expats.  A visit was made to the BBC Proms in London, where they acquitted themselves magnificently, and, following a series of recordings released on the BIS label, they have just been nominated for the Gramophone Orchestra of the Year Award for 2021.


Again, this is where the management steps in, but I fear this is where the journey may well end.  The SSO management has always been an uneasy combination of keen amateur musicians and hard-nosed businessmen; an enthusiasm for music is seen as an adequate qualification to deal with professional musicians, while the real work is in ensuring the books balance at the end of each fiscal year and maybe even show a paper profit.  That lack of real musical experience too often has revealed itself in a lack of vision when it comes to music.  Repertory has been limited, more governed by the particular enthusiasms of the management than a broader understanding of what orchestral players need to keep their interests alive.  A lavish performance of a big Mahler Symphony, or a romantically-extravagant one of a Rachmaninov Concerto being seen as the ultimate measure of the orchestra’s quality, while for its part, the local audience, largely unexposed to serious orchestral music, may enjoy these big spectacular concerts, but otherwise show little interest in what the orchestra does and none at all in the quality of its playing.  Big name soloists and conductors pull them in, but if they see a programme of Mozart and Haydn with just the orchestra to watch, they seem largely disinterested.  And the marketing department does nothing to address this.   Again, the staff are enthusiastic for music, but lack that broader view, and seem content to aim their marketing at children and families, giving off the impression that there is no need to focus on serious music lovers.  The trouble is, those who vote for the Orchestra of the Year award are serious music lovers, and I fear the SSO marketing will not reach them, and certainly not push the nomination with the same fire and vigour as did the Hong Kong team.  More than that, there is an issue of audience loyalty to be addressed.  Any of us who have ever written about the SSO know that there is a proportion of local people whose dislike of the orchestra and all it stands for, while often incoherently expressed, is nevertheless very real.  An administration team of keen enthusiasts is no match to a dedicated band of hostile opponents.  Without strong and focused direction, I cannot see the SSO progressing any further than it has; I fear it will remain a good regional orchestra pandering to the enthusiasms of a few who enjoy the sound of music and music-making perhaps more than the quality of it.


Anthony Camden was Dean when I was working at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, and knowing that I had recently undertaken an extended ABRSM tour of Malaysia, he asked me if I could assist him with a task he had been commissioned to do by the Malaysian government to assess the feasibility of setting up a music conservatory in the country.  All of us involved agreed unanimously that it would never work; Camden himself had been appalled at the standards of teaching he had found and was incredulous that there were, so far as he could discover, no properly trained teachers of double reed instruments in the entire country. Our report delivered, I set off to start a new life in Sarawak, that part of Malaysia which occupies a small chunk of the island of Borneo where, some years later, and totally out of the blue, I had a call from John Duffy, a friend of Camden’s, who had heard about the work I had done with him.  John had been called in to help establish a new orchestra in Malaysia; it seemed that, while a music conservatory was (then) an impossible dream, the will was there to establish a fully professional orchestra.  The idea was that, if Malaysia could attract the very best players and create a state-of-the-art concert hall for them to perform in, Malaysians might then be more inclined to take music seriously and improve on the appallingly low standards Camden and I had witnessed.  He wanted my input and, to cut a long story short, I ended up in Kuala Lumpur, assisting the British agency, IMG Artists, in creating what was to become the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra.  Tan Sri Azizan, president of the national oil company (Petronas) was hugely enthusiastic, offering a site between the twin towers he was having built as his company’s headquarters in the city centre for the concert hall, and willing to pay for the new orchestra out of Petronas coffers.  No expense was spared in the construction of the hall or the hiring of the musicians, but even then, when the orchestra first got together under Kees Bakels for a preliminary play-together in April 1998, none of us was expecting quite such a fabulous sound.  And so it grew, the orchestra quickly earning a reputation around the world for the excellence of its playing, the consistency of its standards, and the sumptuousness of its sound on its home turf.  The BBC took an interest, ran, for the first time ever, an official Last Night of the Proms in Kuala Lumpur, and it was an open secret that the MPO was being groomed to appear at the London Proms.  At that point management took over.


Something any company in Malaysia has to accept is, no matter what it is doing nor who it is doing it for, it has to have a Malaysian at its head.  The orchestra and concert hall, being part of the state-owned Petronas group, needed not only to have a Malaysian CEO but a Muslim one at that.  From the outside, that probably does not seem a big deal; but many Malaysian Muslims regarded instrumental music as haram (forbidden), which instantly causes problems for a Malaysian Muslim CEO.  As a result, Petronas put in place its most ineffective people, who were there by virtue of being incompetent but unsackable, and, initially, the CEO happily let the IMG staff run the roost and spent his time on the golf course.  But the IMG staff left when the contracts expired, Tan Sri Azizan died, and the new Petronas president appointed a new CEO who, disastrously, claimed to “like” music.  She took a more hands-on approach to the day-to-day running of the orchestra.  It was my job to help her bridge that chasm between the Malaysian ethic of not doing much and accepting the mediocre, and the musical one of working tirelessly to achieve ever-higher standards; and I failed miserably.  The big issue came when, with the rise of petrol prices, the public started to question why they were having to pay a few sen more for their fuel when the same company was lavishing millions on a group of elite expats who were playing something forbidden by religion and therefore closed to the majority of Malaysians.  She was to appear before a government committee, and briefing her the night before, I reminded her that the whole objective in setting up the MPO was to show not what Malaysians could do, but to show Malaysians and the world that Malaysia could entice the very best in any field of human activity (this was also the period during which the Formula 1 was brought to Malaysia).  I do not think it was ever part of the plan to train Malaysians to be musicians; more to entice major investment to the country by showing it was as good as the west when it came to costly cultural pursuits.  She ignored this and promised the government committee that she would ensure that Malaysians, rather than foreigners, occupied seats in the orchestra, irrespective of ability.  That CEO was seen to have been a great success, so was moved on, and a wholly unsuitable member of the Petronas legal team was brought in to serve as the CEO under whom, it was earnestly hoped, the orchestra would simply fade away.  Sadly, this CEO turned it round and it began to restore the MPO to its once magnificent self.  But this was not the plan, and she was promptly dismissed.  Then, in fulfilment of the promise the previous CEO had made to the government committee, when the players’ contracts came up for renewal, a large number of key players – among them the very best in the orchestra whose presence ensured that the orchestra had a very high international profile – found their contracts were not renewed (mine was among these).


For many years the rump MPO staggered on, more a training orchestra than anything else, with young, inexperienced players brought in to play alongside their teachers – great experience for them but a miserable one for the audience.  Increasingly bad management focused its energies on appealing to the local market, which effectively meant a diet of populist music events usually featuring home-grown pop performers.  But in recent years, things perked up.  A new manager, a competent-ish CEO and a gradual build up in playing strength, saw the orchestra claw its way back up towards musical respectability.  And then it all came crashing down again.  Largely blamed on the pandemic, management felt it was no longer viable to keep in place an orchestra which never performed (the MPO marketing people showed none of the initiative shown by the HK Phil marketing people in promoting the orchestra during lockdowns), and when they come up for renewal, most of the musicians’ contracts will not be renewed.  A rump band will be left, mostly of wind players who can give credibility to recording sessions by Malaysian pop performers, and it seems inevitable that even these will eventually fade away, and what was once south-east Asia’s orchestral crowning glory will just be a memory. 


What these three different stories tell me is that, no matter how dedicated, talented, and skilled the musicians are, an orchestra stands or falls on the strength of its management.  Sadly, whether or not an orchestra gets the management it deserves seems to be purely a matter of chance.

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