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The scandal of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra is brought home to German musicians

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.

Martin Morgenstern

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Comments

  1. This all seems hauntingly familiar…..on a lesser scale perhaps in terms of exposure and public interest.
    There is a little known orchestra in Durban, South Africa, called the KZN Philharmoinc Orchestra. Also an ‘imported culture’, most residents of Durban are unaware that there is a symphony orchestra on their doorstep. This orchestra has no musical director, as the CEO, Bongani Tembe, appointed himself the CEO and Artistic Director years ago , believing that a full time Musical Director or Principal Director would be detrimental to the Orchestra, whilst conveniently boosting his bank account. Although government funded, the musicians are paid a miserly salary that would be seen as deplorable even if on a part time basis, however they are contracted on a full time basis and restricted within the bounds of their contracts to only work with the KZNPO….. I worked as a musician here for 8 years and witnessed the most awful hypocrisy and corruption within the bearocratic walls of this company during my time there, especially in my capacity as a committee member. Due to the structure of the administration imposed on the arts by the ANC, with the connivance of Bongani Tembe and people like him, musicians are treated little more than factory workers with a linear top-down corporate model that places an orchestral manager in a salary bracket three times that of a principal musician, and the CEO living the most lavish lifestyle whilst an average foreign musician in the orchestra can barely make it though the month after rent, and living costs are paid…..without ever being in the bracket that could give them any kind of mortgage.
    Bizarrely most do not complain, as they are too afraid. I did, and my life was made hell for over two years by the management……bare in mind this is a management where the manager was found (by me) breaking into and stealing a musicians personal bass without the consent of the musician, so that he could hire it to a visiting orchestra, with total immunity. (This manager was later forced to resign for other ‘dodgy dealings’ only to have his unqualified live-in girlfriend appointed manager after him…..her previous experience; ” selling tickets at the local Ushaka marine park!” )
    This orchestra, supposedly the premier orchestra of south Africa, would make even the MPO management blush innocently ……perhaps a similar imposition has set in with the MPO…a kind of “lord of the flies meets lost’ where the orchestra simply becomes a means to keep a few individuals from the management in the lifestyle for which they have become accustomed. Bongani Tembe, as the self appointed Artisitc Director, has never once lifted an arm or baton or uttered a musical term in front of his musicians (for this he is not even qualified as a musican – originally being a very very bad operatic tenor) however he has hired himself and his family as soloists with the orchestra whilst taking the time off as CEO/Artisitc Director so that he can pay himself a handsome fee…. on top of his monthly salary of approximately £10,000 a month. Interestingly a tutti musician earns about £850 a month (do not believe what some would say, this is no longer a lot in South Africa….and barely pays the rent) and the Orchestra Manager earns about £3500 a month!!!
    You should investigate the KZNPO ….for crimes against music and musicians ……

  2. This all seems hauntingly familiar…..on a lesser scale perhaps in terms of exposure and public interest.
    There is a little known orchestra in Durban, South Africa, called the KZN Philharmoinc Orchestra. Also an ‘imported culture’, most residents of Durban are unaware that there is a symphony orchestra on their doorstep. This orchestra has no musical director, as the CEO, Bongani Tembe, appointed himself the CEO and Artistic Director years ago , believing that a full time Musical Director or Principal Director would be detrimental to the Orchestra, whilst conveniently boosting his bank account. Although government funded, the musicians are paid a miserly salary that would be seen as deplorable even if on a part time basis, however they are contracted on a full time basis and restricted within the bounds of their contracts to only work with the KZNPO….. I worked as a musician here for 8 years and witnessed the most awful hypocrisy and corruption within the bearocratic walls of this company during my time there, especially in my capacity as a committee member. Due to the structure of the administration imposed on the arts by the ANC, with the connivance of Bongani Tembe and people like him, musicians are treated little more than factory workers with a linear top-down corporate model that places an orchestral manager in a salary bracket three times that of a principal musician, and the CEO living the most lavish lifestyle whilst an average foreign musician in the orchestra can barely make it though the month after rent, and living costs are paid…..without ever being in the bracket that could give them any kind of mortgage.
    Bizarrely most do not complain, as they are too afraid. I did, and my life was made hell for over two years by the management……bare in mind this is a management where the manager was found (by me) breaking into and stealing a musicians personal bass without the consent of the musician, so that he could hire it to a visiting orchestra, with total immunity. (This manager was later forced to resign for other ‘dodgy dealings’ only to have his unqualified live-in girlfriend appointed manager after him…..her previous experience; ” selling tickets at the local Ushaka marine park!” )
    This orchestra, supposedly the premier orchestra of south Africa, would make even the MPO management blush innocently ……perhaps a similar imposition has set in with the MPO…a kind of “lord of the flies meets lost’ where the orchestra simply becomes a means to keep a few individuals from the management in the lifestyle for which they have become accustomed. Bongani Tembe, as the self appointed Artisitc Director, has never once lifted an arm or baton or uttered a musical term in front of his musicians (for this he is not even qualified as a musican – originally being a very very bad operatic tenor) however he has hired himself and his family as soloists with the orchestra whilst taking the time off as CEO/Artisitc Director so that he can pay himself a handsome fee…. on top of his monthly salary of approximately £10,000 a month. Interestingly a tutti musician earns about £850 a month (do not believe what some would say, this is no longer a lot in South Africa….and barely pays the rent) and the Orchestra Manager earns about £3500 a month!!!
    You should investigate the KZNPO ….
    for crimes against music and musicians ……
    They’ve been hiding it for years

    • insightMPO says:

      Tony, Thanks for sharing the story of your orchestra. Definitely deserves an own blog.
      Yes, there seem to be a lot of parallels indeed. I guess the level of corruption in the two countries is not so different either.

  3. If you take a job in a country that is a dubious democracy at best and highly corrupt to boot, employee beware. The orchestra sounded like a dream position when it was started, but things change.

    I would imagine that most accomplished musicians should be happy to get out of there. Why bother protesting dismissals in an orchestra as dysfunctional as the MSO? They should just say they’re resigning in protest against the lack of competence of the artistic and administrative management. I’d like to see how long Flor would stay on after he has nothing but local talent to work with.

    Of course, this is easy for me to say. When you’re on the other side of the world for years, you lose contacts and with the current situation in both Europe and the US, well-paying orchestra positions are hard to find.

    I’m sorry for any musicians who have to go through this kind of mess. Nothing is worse than having a lousy workplace that you hate to go to every day.

  4. Just an opinion says:

    The MPO was founded 14 years ago with the goal to establish a full size world class philharmonic orchestra in Malaysia. And successfully so.
    Sadly , after the former chairman of petronas died a few years ago everything went south. Slowly first but now with high speed, leaving the MPO just a shadow of its former self and it is obvious that it wont stop here since the management does not intent to keep it on the same artistic or financial level.
    Many good players left over the last few years already mostly because of the unbearable situation with the music director. 
    Strong and experienced players are sacked now and unqualified but “loyal” players are installed by the MD. 
    Shame on you, Petronas, that you let this happen.

  5. insightMPO says:

    Norman, thanks for reporting about this! It’s certainly great news that this sad story is covered by one of the leading music magazines in Middle Europe.
    Btw. not all of the sacked musicians are Europeans, like you wrote, but that really does not matter much. They are all overpaid foreigners in the eyes of the new management. More than that, good musicians dedicated to the orchestra, some even dared to oppose the renewal of a corrupt music director. Of course that can’t be tolerated. They must go!

    Uncultured, uneducated, unqualified and spiteful people up there…

    How the musicians are treated in general is a scandal for sure! There is little doubt that, sooner or later, MPO will share the fate of PPAG. If the Muslim bosses of Petronas decide to close down their own local folklore group how are the odds that they will keep the Western orchestra?

    Many musicians of the MPO received following anonymous email recently, worth to read and to publish here. It surely gives some idea about the mood here at the moment.

    “dear colleagues,

    Is anyone else as pissed off as I am about what those people in the office are doing to our orchestra? I used to be proud to say I’m in the MPO, now I’m ashamed. And we still don’t have a new contract. What the hell?

    Ever since they kicked out Karina, it has not been about the music anymore. Seems like they’re more interested in intimidating us than motivating us to make good music. So what can we do about it? I went to see a lawyer and told her all about what’s going on (it felt more like a therapy session than legal advice) and she said the fact that they haven’t given us a contract within the six months’ is a “material breach”, and she also said that the fact that they have lowered all our salaries and benefits without any consultation is another material breach. When they change our conditions like that without talking to us about it we immediately have the right to walk off the job, and tell them we have been constructively dismissed. Then we bring in the lawyers to sue. I wouldn’t be surprised if the terms of the new contract are even worse than the letters we had to sign, but those letters don’t say much. She also said that “letter of intent” is bs, and only after seeing the real contract we can decide what to do. Because they didn’t give us 6 month’s the ball is in our court. If the contract sucks, or if you’ve got something better to go to, call constructive dismissal, walk away, and go see your lawyer. That’s what I’m thinking of doing, but I don’t advise you to do it without talking to a lawyer first.

    And what about our colleagues who were fired? What can we do to help them out? They’re not telling anyone the reason for being fired, but of course we all know. I’ve never heard of something so vindictive. Any one of us is next, of course. Just question our Dear Leader (you know who, the boss who’s so afraid to be seen that she tells us all we’re a security risk and can’t come near her), or stand up and say something at a meeting, or talk back to Flor, and then your MPO career will be over. He thinks he can just go spend a week in a 5 star hotel in Munich and replace everyone just like that. But we all saw what a sham that turned out to be. Someone should tell Petronas shareholders how much money Raina is spending on Flors holidays.

    This is such bullshit. I admire those of you who can still go on stage and play so well. That is the only thing that is keeping me going and inspired, being on stage with such professionals while the ignoramuses do their best to destroy us. So thanks for that, anyway.

    a colleague”

  6. I have been following this thread with great interest over the past few months and have to say that sadly, none of this comes as a surprise. This project, constructed as it was on complex and shaky ideological ground, was destined to crash and burn from the very beginning. These are my (obviously subjective, but none the less informed by on the ground experience) thoughts on the situation, which I offer for consideration by readers of this blog as background:

    The emotionally charged, somewhat reductive anecdotal comments that have preceded this current thread, whilst perfectly understandable and justified, (I in no way wish to belittle the upsetting experiences of all involved), belie a seemingly total understanding of the real issues at play and for which human beings and their lives, in this case musicians of the MPO, ( but in actual fact there have been many other ‘hidden’ casualties) are being sacrificed. It is heartening to see that the ‘culture clash’ debate is at last being introduced to the discussion, as it is indeed the clash between the ‘colonial’ and ‘post-colonial’ worlds that lies at the very heart of this cultural soap opera. As the instigator of this project, the then chairman of Petronas, Tan Sri Azizan, had a genuine passion for classical music, introduced to him no doubt via his British education in the colonial era. He wanted to share this passion with ‘the people’, and wanted them to be able to experience ‘the best’ which also fitted in neatly with the then government’s Wawazan 2020 agenda -which essentially seemed to require everything to be ‘world class’…….. ‘Leading’ experts in the field of classical music were drafted in from London in order to ensure that this project was delivered to ‘world-class’ standard according to Tan Sri’s vision ( it didn’t hurt that the fees for this job were huge in the context of the music world at the time, and that the knock-on business generated would make a select few very wealthy). Unfortunately, however, whilst Tan Sri’s intention were undoubtably honorable, they were also naive: Music can of course be enjoyed on a purely aesthetic level, but all cultural products are loaded with political, historical and ideological meaning, classical music no less (although formalists would no-doubt beg to differ….). What to Tan Sri seemed like a step forward in developing the musical tastes of a nation, thereby contributing to the overall rise of the nation as ‘developed’ in accordance with his own tastes refined under colonial rule, to others appeared as undisguised cultural imperialism. It is a great pity that those ‘experts’ drafted in to help set up the project did not have the intellectual sophistication to identify these inevitable issues from the start so that they could then help their clients mediate these fairly glaringly obvious issues, but’s that’s another thread altogether…..

    The moral of the story may well be that if you transplant a cultural artefact from one culture, wholesale into another, you really do need to think about what you are doing from all perspectives – having said that hindsight is always a wonderful thing!

    PS Whilst I can completely understand the motivations for them, the poorly-written, mud-slinging/ranting comments posted by some of those involved actually do little to promote their cause. Calm, reasoned, detached logic will always be a more powerful weapon in a war of words.

  7. insightMPO says:

    Dear Robert,

    Although many of the things you wrote are true and valid facts I would disagree with your conclusion.

    The MPO got huge potential when it was started, and there are examples of successfully ‘implanting’ foreign culture in other countries. Look at the classic music scene in Japan today for instance. I’m sure most of the musicians who joined the MPO back in 1998 hoped to be part of something like that.

    The main reason for the bad situation of the MPO right now is not a failed attempt to conquer the local cultural scene but simply caused by mismanagement and corruption. Unqualified people doing jobs they should not. More important: people without any vision.

    A very common thing in Malaysia…There are countless stories about companies started by foreigners or with the help of foreign experts. It starts well and then the locals take over the management. The new bosses think they can run it without help and much cheaper without the foreign experts. Yeah, sure, run it into the ground.

    If Petronas want’s to close down MPO like they did with PPAG they could do so any time. So why the company is still spending hundreds of thousands of Ringgit to bring in expensive Substitutes from Europe or US almost every week?
    But firing experienced players without any reason given?

  8. Peter Klein says:

    Dear fellow musicians,

    Another abusive work place is OSESP, the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra. Contracts are terminated without any explanations and new people get hired without auditioning, while others have to do 5-round-auditions. While they require an extremely high level of some of the new comers, most of the older folks sitting there are highly disqualified musicians.

    I must say that the only good thing going on there is the new chiefconductor Marin Alsop. She’s just great. Let’s see how long it will take her to figure out how things are done over there and get out of her contract.

    Best regards,

    PK

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