The dismissal of nine European musicians by the Malaysian Philharmonic, with the connivance of its music director Claus Peter Flor, has been covered extensively in this space – without one word being allowed to appear in Kuala Lumpur media. But musicians the world over are becoming aware that Malaysia is a no-go zone. Recent MPO auditions in Munich were embarrassingly ill-attended and Flor is dogged by unfortunate echoes wherever he goes.
Now, Das Orchestra, magazine of the German musical profession, has presented a bleak account of the situation. Here’s a rough translation.
Fatal Exception Errors
The Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra is suffering the worst crisis in its history.
“Up there you have all the inextricable complications of a great authority – I imagined
that I had an approximate conception of its nature before I came here, but how childish
my ideas were!” Franz Kafka says in “The Castle”. The musicians of the Malaysian
Philharmonic Orchestra must see themselves in a similarly hopeless situation these days.
In mid-February, the first calls for help were heard on the Internet. “Strange things are
going on here,” wrote one of the musicians to the editors. Unfortunately, he was
regrettably unavailable for interviews under threat of instant dismissal. This more or less
applies to all of his colleagues. What happened?
On 15 February, nine long-standing members of the orchestra, including the
Concertmaster and the Co-Concertmaster (both founding members of the orchestra),
received notice of termination. Repeated requests for an explanation from the affected
musicians to the recently-exchanged management remained unanswered. The Music
Director Claus Peter Flor did not show solidarity with his orchestra, as a Music Director
elsewhere might have. No, the management’s decision to fire the musicians apparently
followed his advice. At least, that is how Mufidah Mahmud, (Assistant Director of the
marketing department of the orchestra) is quoted by a local newspaper. Flor refuses to
comment on the events. “Maestro Flor will be happy to give an interview about his
career, his future projects and recordings,” is the reply to an inquiry per e-mail to his
agency, “but unfortunately he is not free to discuss the situation in Malaysia.” Whoever
attempts to clarify the background of the present situation meets resistance everywhere,
up to the refusal of the press department of the orchestra to provide a photo of the
ensemble unless the relevant text is submitted for proofreading.
An anonymous letter, sent to international media companies and trade unions by the
orchestra, explains that the previous practice, which encourages the musicians with longterm
contractual perspectives to build an artistic high quality ensemble, has been replaced
by a draconian “hire-and-fire” policy. A recently added clause in the contract allows the
orchestra management to dismiss musicians without having to state any reason. This
option now has been used at the earliest possible date; among others two of the sacked
musicians have been members of the Orchestra Council. The urgent letter continues: in
autumn, more than thirty jobs will be vacant within the orchestra. New members will be
offered contracts with up to 25% lower salary, and there is a de facto pay cut for existing
musicians due to an implemented unfavorable currency exchange rate. The manager, Nor
Raina Yeong Abdullah has rejected talks with the Orchestra Council in general. But it
seems the conductor has alienated himself from the orchestra, as well: Flor has installed a
new concertmistress previously unanimously rejected by the section. Voices were also
raised against Flor’s own contract extension. Now they are silenced in a radical manner.
Karen Kamensek, Music Director of the Hanover State Opera (Germany), has written an
open letter to the musicians calling the incident “shocking and extremely difficult to
understand”. Kamensek, who recently led the orchestra as guest conductor, is hoping for
public pressure to force a withdrawal of the dismissals, which are weakening and
maiming the orchestra and “possibly could totally destroy it”.
The sad irony of this story: it might be in the interest of the founder and sole sponsor of
the orchestra, the Malaysian state-run oil company Petronas. It is between the “Petronas
Towers” in Kuala Lumpur where the concert hall of the ensemble is located. The
orchestra is in the fifteenth year of its existence, is compiled almost exclusively from
international musicians, and understandably appears on the surface as an elitist ensemble.
Who can say whether the ensemble still fits into the marketing philosophy of the
company at all? If one follows the heated discussions of some music blogs adopting the
theme, one can read that the orchestra and its audience have a cultural convergence
problem. This is a general problem and is not only observed in the emerging country
Malaysia. Can importing a culture into a foreign country, without paying attention to
local tastes and traditions, go well in the long run? Few residents of the capital of
Malaysia know that Kuala Lumpur is home to a philharmonic orchestra. What does a
guest performance by Daniel Müller-Schott or Nigel Kennedy mean to them – except
perhaps the pride of the visit of an international star?
If the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra is able to survive the current crisis, it would be
crucial for the management to strengthen marketing and junior work, advocating to the
audience a much more fundamental and comprehensive understanding of the appreciation
of Western music. Highly fatal, however, is to seek the causes of the current situation
only in the composition of the orchestra. Between the lines of the commentators
sometimes flashes “Behold, we Malaysians can play classical music without these
overpaid foreigners.” Anyone who argues this way does not understand, to the slightest
extent, the dimensions of the problem.