Help sacked MPO players to fight their case at court!

A Malaysian court has tweaked the law to deny basic rights to seven foreign players who were summarily dismissed by the Malaysian Philharmonic, as reported earlier. The orchestra remains under an international musicians boycott.

This appeal comes from one of the disenfranchised seven. Please support this appeal if you can and forward this message.

“I am one of the seven musicians fired three years ago by the Malaysian Philharmonic. After an interminably long wait, the judge has finally delivered her verdict: despite our many years of dedicated work with the orchestra, including long service bonuses and contractual retirement clauses, and despite our unblemished employment records, we were all in fact fixed-term, temporary employees, and had no right to expect continued employment. She decided that the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra had every right to terminate our employment at the end of our current contracts, without giving any notice or reason.

From all the legal advice we have since received, and the case readings we have done, this decision goes completely against the Malaysian Industrial Relations Act, and against just about every precedent that has been set by previous cases. If allowed to stand unchallenged, it will affect every current and future employee of the Malaysian Philharmonic, and seems to give Malaysian employers the right to terminate any employee at will as long as they have implied their “intention” to use a fixed-term contract. Up until this case, under Malaysian law, the burden of proof was always on the employer to establish that the recourse to the fixed-term engagement of the workers was genuinely related to their establishment or undertaking. That appears to be the case no longer.

We believe that an injustice has been done, and are determined to exhaust all of our options to make it right. The legal fees involved are substantial, however, and all of us have had our future earning potential severely affected by our dismissals. To that end, we have established a fundraising campaign to help our supporters contribute, and would like to invite your readers to participate.

Donations can be made anonymously, and we pledge to be completely transparent with the use of those funds, and with our progress. Everything we receive will go to our legal fund, and at the end of the case, if we win a monetary award, we will either return your donation to you in full (if you wish), or make a lump sum donation of the full amount collected to a worthy youth orchestra.”

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Re-auditions: A wrong tool for orchestras

From time to time the re-audition virus breaks out in the professional orchestra world. The latest cases were those at the Symphony Orchestra of Brazil, the Malaysian Philharmonic  Orchestra and the Korean Broadcasting System Symphony Orchestra in 2012.

Internat. Orchestra Conference in Oslo, Febr. 2014: No re-auditions!

Internat. Orchestra Conference in Oslo, Febr. 2014: No re-auditions!

But there were earlier examples: Back in the early 1970s the Rotterdam Philharmonic management and its chief conductor decided to improve the orchestra’s quality through re-auditions. When in the 1980s three Dutch orchestras merged in the Netherlands Philharmonic, re-auditions also took place.

In Germany, shortly after the peaceful reunification in the early 1990s, some conductors in the new federal states started to try selecting a couple of musicians by re-auditions. But these attempts failed due to legal restrictions: In German law and in our national or single collective bargaining agreements an audition may only take place before the musician is employed for the first time, before he or she enters the orchestra. The issue of a re-audition is not regulated in any collective bargaining agreement for orchestras in Germany. Therefore no musician could be forced to take part in a re-audition. And even if he would participate in a re-audition process, there would be no negative consequences. A poor re-audition performance could never be a reason for dismissal.

If you analyze the re-audition cases of the past you will always find the argument from the management or the conductor to improve the orchestra’s quality. This means in concrete: at least dismissals or pink slips for musicians who don’t meet artistic standards, which are only in the brain of the orchestra manager or conductor. And this means too: despotism and unfair methods to kick musicians out of their jobs.

On the other hand: which are the most successful orchestras in the world? Everybody could name ten or more famous national and international widely recognized orchestras. And one can bet: none of these orchestras do have a re-audition system.

The truth is: every rehearsal, every concert, every recording session with the orchestra is a “re-audition” itself for every musician who has to perform on top-level. However, many musicians say that you don’t perform for the audience, but you perform for the orchestra colleagues. There is no stronger artistic control and social pressure as in the orchestra sections themselves.

To sum up: whenever the management or the conductor of a professional symphony orchestra tries to promote the re-audition issue, this may be an evidence for the inadequate leadership skills of these people and not an evidence for a poor artistic performance of musicians. Re-audition remains to be a wrong tool.

Musicians in foreign orchestras – everybody is a stranger, almost everywhere

Many musicians possibly play at some time with the idea of working in a foreign orchestra. In Germany for example 27 per cent of orchestra musicians are not of German stock. The motivation for musicians to come to Europe esp. to Germany is manifold: Germany is an attractive place for professional musicians: 131 professional full time orchestras, unlimited contracts, high artistic and employment conditions, good monthly wages.

 As a musician in an orchestra abbroad?

As a musician in an orchestra abbroad?

But what are the motivations, chances and challenges for professional musicians of leaving Germany? For some, it is a matter of improving job chances, while others may seek artistic stimulation or even to do musical “development work”. In any case, the farther away, the greater the challenges, musically as well as in practical terms. There are musicians who worked in Italy, Spain or Portugal, but were eventually forced to return to Germany due to economic reasons after the latest financial troubles in those countries. Periods abroad as a musician may be challenging and sometimes tough, but musicians often emphasize the opportunity to gain experience and the sheer excitement of trying something new.

More complex are biographies where the career trajectories lead for example from ensembles in Spain to Brazil and finally New Zealand. As becomes clear, there is no such thing as a perfect work or orchestra systems and much will depend on personal temperament, but at the same time working in several countries also holds great possibilities. Less challenging proved to be the cases of young musicians who joined the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra when it was founded in 2007. With its excellent financial position, the orchestra took care of many of the practical problems usually facing ex-pats. Instead, settling in proved to be more about dealing with cultural and musical issues. Cultural aspects – of living in a Muslim society, in an absolute monarchy, of forming a new orchestra from scratch with members from 30 nations – have been a challenge, even for Kurt Meister, orchestra manager of the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra and previously with the Bavarian State Opera. At the same time these unfamiliar economic and political structures can also offer distinct advantages.

And how is the experience of repatriates? Having returned to Germany or any other home country after years with another orchestra, many musicians talk about some of the issues that may crop up upon return. For example, where German ensembles often offer superior musical standards, working atmosphere tends to be more formal. Repatriates often recommend gaining experience abroad, though counsel openness and flexibility.

Another experience is the incompetence of management and leadership (which can occur in every orchestra). But it hurts if musicians from abroad, who committed theirs lives for the artistic development of an orchestra, are threatened to lose their jobs first, which was the case at the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO – Kuala Lumpur) in 2011.

What is happening to the MPO in Kuala Lumpur?

The Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO), based in Kuala Lumpur, is “non-renewing” 9 players:  firing them in any other terms.  On Feb 15, 2012, they were informed that in 6 months (August 15, 2012) they would no longer be employed.

Things like these are happening around the globe within orchtestras, but: repeated requests by the musicians for explanations or justifications behind the dismissals are being ignored completely by the management, who have only recently been moved into their administrative jobs by the parent oil company Petronas.  The shift of power took place just over one year ago, in early 2011.  The managers shuffled in have absolutely no music backgrounds or experience with managing anything related to orchestras.  The music director, Claus Peter Flor, has – following the official management statement – been involved in these decisions, but has until now obviously remained completely silent regarding his role in the matter.  Three weeks after the announcement he finally returned to conduct his first rehearsal it is reported from orchestra members that he had not a single word to say on the matter to the musicians.

It has been the practice of the MPO, since its beginnings in 1998, to give the musicians consecutive 2 year contracts over and over.  It has always been understood (and much encouraged by previous management) that musicians will stay on and be renewed, as long as there are no performance issues.  A 4-year ‘step-up’ in pay and a 10 year bonus had been included as incentives in the past.  The philosophy of encouraging long-term musicians in the process of building a solid highly skilled ensemble, has been promoted by past managers.  In the 2010 contract, however, musicians were informed a new clause would be ”added” to the contract, regarding renewals – a draconian clause that appeared to give management the right to remove people without reasons, and pretend that they were not in fact long term employees.  The musicians voiced opposition to this clause – only to be told, “You can sign this renewal as it is presented – or resign”.  The clause was used, at the first possible moment:  Feb 15, 2012.  It is unlikely that the clause will even stand up to legal action, under Malaysian Labor Laws, but management is resting their entire case on it.  It is a disgraceful move, which should be fully exposed to the music and symphonic world.

Musicians report that the management is not even attempting the slightest inference about “artistic ability” in these dismissals, essentially acknowledging that the decisions are purely political.  They have proceeded, cynically, to advertise abroad almost immediately for replacements:  as though nothing unusual has happened and they are free to to y around with any musician, and their families, as they please.

One of the most egregious facts, by Western standards, is the firing of two Orchestra Committee members: people elected simply to be the orchestra’s voice to management.  It is suspected that managers simply collected CCTV tapes of an orchestra meeting, and arbitrarily sacked the chairperson of this committee and one member who was simply reading out a composed letter to the Board, without prejudice, for the meeting to decide on its content, without ever interviewing either of them, or even trying to understand what is the role of an O.C.  They then fired the wife of the chairperson as well, for pure vindictiveness, disregarding her 12 years of service.

This atrocious decision has outraged and very much disheartened virtually all the remaining musicians in the orchestra.  With 20 positions currently vacant in the orchestra, adding these 9 terminations, plus the 3 resigned posts leaves  over 30 spots empty in the MPO.  The latest news is that new players are being offered contracts at 20 – 25% lower pay (in Malaysian Ringgit) than the previous contract, and existing members are being renewed at the lowest possible USD exchange rate, amounting to a 7% wage cut approximately.  On top of this, in the new contract management is making it extremely difficult or impossible for a musician to take leave for auditions elsewhere. Basically, you’re committed to the organization if you move here, and you’re isolated from the music world once you arrive, until they arbitrarily decide not to use you anymore.  Clearly this is a disaster for an orchestra that held so much promise only a few short years ago.

To sum up:

Rough times for management and musicians in the MPO. The international community of professional musicians is very well linked. Who will apply for vacant jobs in the MPO due to these circumstances?

Orchestras and musicians under pressure – what can be done about it?

Why are so many orchestras and musicians around the world under pressure in these days? In the Netherlands recent budget cuts begin to bite. Orchestras are closing down, musicians loose their jobs or do face severe pay cuts. The Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) has fired some musicians (mostly from Europe) without any explanation. In Italy orchestra musicians are by law not longer allowed to do additional work, to play gigs or chamber music, to teach pupils or to have masterclasses. In Spain the Liceu (Barcelona) has been trying to close doors for two months during the running season to save money.  In Germany the South West Public Radio (SWR) wants to merge its two major orchestras (100 posts each) in Freiburg and Stuttgart. A couple of other German orchestras are facing cuts, too. There are more examples from the UK, the US and other countries.

Has anyone an explanation for these developments? Of course the local circumstances are very different. In some South European countries the financial crisis jeopardizes the arts budgts, too. But it’s not only a question of lack of money. The really scary thing is, that in most of these cases the artists, the musicians and sometimes even the managements are almost victims of incompetence of the board, the arts aministration or the politicians in charge.

Is there any insurance, any toolbox for a better perfomance during a crisis? One of course is the solidarity between the artists themselves. Another one is the efficient support from the audiences. A third component is the public opinion which is influenced by the media, more and more by social media like blogs, twitter and facebook. There is still a restraint to be observed how orchestras, managements and musicians use social media as well as lobbying tools to safeguard their own interests. Even a more active and sometimes agressive communication for the orchestra goals must be considered (see the pictured example from Serbia).

Those orchestras in which management and musicians stay together, work together and act together will be stronger and even more successfull than others. This needs confidence, respect, communication, participation and motivation. If there are front lines within the orchestra itsself, the battle will be lost.