Arts: Staying on

It's two months since the Union Jack last flew over Hong Kong, but there's still one man flying the flag for Blighty. Michael Church meets David Atherton, music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic
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The Independent Culture
No one who saw it will ever forget Governor Patten's bowed head as he listened to Nimrod on that last rain-drenched day of empire just two short months ago. Some viewers may have noticed the cameras alighting from time to time on another head, bowed not in grief but in concentration. That was David Atherton, music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic - the orchestra charged with setting the handover to music - but the story as he tells it is pure comedy.

"I walked out on stage holding an umbrella over myself and our soloist, Dame Gwyneth Jones, while members of the administration held umbrellas over the basses as they played, because the overhead canopy didn't stretch far enough to cover the full orchestra. Down there by the harbour, the monsoon humidity was horrendous, so all the string players were equipped with cheap $50 violins and cellos - their normal instruments would have cracked open and the glue dissolved in five minutes. Every instrument was miked - it sounded like the worst school band you ever heard. Anywhere else in the world, at any other time, we wouldn't have considered playing in such conditions, but this particular concert had to happen."

From a musical point of view, he says, the event was a non-starter. "We were a small element in a pageant with the navy and air-force bands, and 6,000 children, and all we saw was a sea of umbrellas. But I had insisted from the start that we should not just be seen as a backing-group for Chinese folk-songs, and that at some point the orchestra should do a small symphonic piece." Hence Nimrod, and Patten's tears, after which the rain suddenly stopped.

For the next five days the orchestra joined in the official celebrations, and premiered the Symphony 1997 (Heaven Earth Mankind) which the expatriate Chinese composer Tan Dun had written especially for the occasion. "It was business as usual," says Atherton. "We didn't have time to stop and think." Two months on, he has had time to think, and still feels fine about the contract he's signed to work on under Chinese rule until September of the year 2000.

"So far nothing untoward has happened, because the real handover has been happening steadily over the last four or five years. The big companies have seen which side their bread is buttered on, and started doing business with Beijing. Over the last few weeks our board has altered slightly, but that's only because of local government changes. It's still local people running things, and mostly the same people, the same politicians and businessmen."

But this, he says, is not a city where the arts are pre-eminent. "Money is what it's all about. The arts are a low priority, as they are almost everywhere else." That said, he's still in a better position than any music director in the West, since 75 per cent of his funding comes from local government. This means that he can plan with a confidence which seems contagious: he's never lost so few players through natural wastage, and never had so many good ones queuing to join. "We can't specifically reassure people about the future - all we can say is that our indications are positive. But that seems more than enough." Strange: it's as if the Tiananmen massacre never happened.

Atherton's first encounter with his future band - in 1989 - was not auspicious. "They'd told me they wanted an international-standard orchestra, so I listened, and to be honest was appalled at what I heard. I felt things could only get better." He took the plunge and swung into action.

"My duty was to improve the orchestra, so some very unpleasant decisions had to be taken. Now the players who are there are there on merit, and for no other reason. Though half the players were Western, I decided to use nobody's Christian name, so that the Chinese wouldn't feel I was giving preferential treatment. I also stopped the Westerners running off to do extramural work to top up their salaries."

They comprise 13 different nationalities, with half coming from the West and half from the East: Atherton has not (yet?) come under pressure to increase the ratio of Chinese. Each year he auditions in Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and London, as well as on both sides of America, where mainland Chinese graduates of the Curtis and Juilliard schools see the Hong Kong Philharmonic as their way back home.

"These Chinese players may not have much musical experience," says Atherton, "but they have tremendous technical ability. The diversity of their background does bring problems: a Chinese person won't approach Mozart in the same way as a person from New York - but then neither will a player trained in Israel. The challenge is to impose a style to which they can all relate, and which makes sense musically."

It was five years before he felt confident enough to take them into the recording studios, and then he was careful to steer off repertoire which might have evoked uncomfortable comparisons with the Berlin Phil. Their recordings of lesser-known Stravinsky are good by any standards.

The other challenge was to build an audience. The vast majority of people who come to listen to the Hong Kong Phil have a mainland Chinese background and, therefore, no prior experience of Western music. "But this means that they come with no prejudices. A few years ago we did the Faure Requiem and Gorecki's Third before it had become famous. If we'd put that programme on in the West, anywhere outside the big culturally-aware cities like London or New York, people would have stayed away in droves. In Hong Kong the hall was full, because they'd learnt to trust us." But there's still some basic training to be done. Under the heading "Be a Sensitive Member of the Audience", the current programme asks you to "respect the orchestra and your fellow music-lovers by not chatting or making unnecessary noise and, unless it is absolutely necessary, please don't leave your seat during the performance. If you have a cough, please muffle it with your handkerchief." No easy sneers: such advice would not come amiss at the Royal Albert Hall.

Where, as it happens, Atherton - who once held the record as the youngest ever conductor to appear at the Proms - will take the podium on Saturday with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, of which he is principal guest conductor. He has a string of parallel relationships, regularly conducting at the New York Met and at English National Opera, where he passed up the music directorship last year in favour of an extension to his Hong Kong contract. He continues to run the Mainly Mozart festival in San Diego, but his relationship with the London Sinfonietta, which he founded 30 years ago, seems to have languished - presumably because of his oft-stated view that composers have to earn the right to be played "rather than being plucked out of nowhere". This 53-year-old Lancashire lad doesn't mince his words.

When not making music, he plays with computers. But seriously: he's networked his entire Hong Kong office, and can bring up every individual screen on his personal computer when he's in London. "It's phenomenal," he says, with a glint those underlings must dread. "I can look at people's schedules from across the world, and change them if it seems desirable. Computers are a marvellous antidote to music, because with them it's either right or wrong. It's finite, while music is infinite. I love tinkering and rejigging. I've never had a crash that I couldn't sort out."

Will the Hong Kong idyll crash? Are there no tanks on the horizon? "Who can say? This may sound boring but, for the time being, the news is all good."

David Atherton conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at the Proms on Saturday: 7.30pm Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0171-589 8212), and live on BBC Radio 3