Reports have reached me over the past couple of days that players in the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, which makes its UK debut at the Edinburgh Festival tonight, are required once a year to prove their competence, or lose their jobs.
This sounded, at first impression, not dissimilar to the situation at the Brazil Symphony Orchestra, where three-dozen musicians have been fired after refusing to reaudition, provoking an international boycott. But when I discussed these conditions with the music director Myung-Whun Chung, a rather softer picture emerged.
Chung stated the case that Korea had never in its history had a symphonic orchestra of international standing. ‘When the city of Seoul asked me to undertake this task, I said you need four elements: 1 player for player, a certain level; 2 a conductor who can bring the best out of them; 3 continuous financial support; and 4 time.’
All city officials in Seoul receive an annual evaluation. Musicians are not excepted. ‘It’s not a reaudition as such,’ says Chung, ‘but an obligation we have to face.’
Every years, over the past five years, ‘about four percent’ of the musicians have been let go. But rather than getting thrown on the scrapheap like the Brazilians, the musicians are moved to other duties. ‘We take care of them as best as possible,’ says the conductor. Some go on to play in the secondary orchestra, which give free concerts in each of the 25 districts of the capital. Others are employed to assist and encourage young players who are seeking a place in the orchestra. ‘Older players, past their best playing days, still make an important contribution to the orchestra through their transmission of culture, tradition and their maturity,’ says artistic adviser Michael Fine.
‘Every player we check once a year for a few minutes,’ says Chung. ‘I dream of the day that it won’t happen any more. This is an orchestra that tries to improve daily. The day we can’t do that, I will leave.’
The overseas players in the orchestra are of the highest international calibre. The principal trumpet, from Paris, has just been hired by the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. The orchestra has won a 10-CD contract with Deutsche Grammophon.
Chung, it seems to me, is performing a declicate task with great sensitivity. I am in touch with several members of the orchestra and hear few complaints. Others can learn from this model.
I hear that reuaditions are coming in soon at a major European orchestra in dire need of improvement. Watch this space