Musicians in crucial chairs of the KBS Symphony Orchestra have either walked out or been dismissed, taking their instruments with them. Others are donning protest T-shirts and offering subpar work during practices and even some performances.
Such sourness stems not only from hard financial times and a trend toward declining salaries but the reappointment of an unpopular American-trained conductor. Many veteran musicians with the 55-year-old symphony orchestra are irate about controversial conductor Hahm Shinik, who many say can't tell an oboe from a French horn.
"During rehearsals when the tune is off, the conductor doesn't know," one musician told the JoongAng Daily newspaper here. "Furthermore, he doesn't recognize the distinction between different instruments."
At rallies, the musicians have chanted: "We don’t want a circus. Make the unskilled conductor step down."
The growing strife, long kept behind the curtain, spilled over into a public performance on Friday, when the orchestra could barely finish its program at the Seoul Arts Center.
At an earlier rehearsal, about 70 members wore matching T-shirts carrying slogans against the 54-year-old Hahm, a Korean American Yale music professor, for what they called his unfair disciplinary measures against members of the orchestra.
Regular concert-goers said the weekend performance was visibly strained after Hahm dismissed first chairs for flute, viola and double bass for reportedly violating the rule concerning accepting gigs outside the orchestra.
"Despite a rocky rehearsal, the 661st Subscription of the Masters Series of the KBS Symphony Orchestra went on as planned at 8 p.m. But the discord had clearly done damage," the newspaper reported. "The orchestra squeaked through their first piece, and they rendered Piazolla's tango listless and without spark."
Such discord has struck other orchestras worldwide. In the U.S., the Detroit Symphony Orchestra recently settled a corrosive six-month strike against management. Meanwhile, orchestras in Philadelphia, New York and Boston are facing or in the midst of negotiations on new contracts.
Faced with declining ticket sales and plummeting donations, many are imposing deep cuts. The Philadelphia Orchestra has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection; in Colorado, symphony musicians have accepted a 14% pay cut, and those in Pittsburgh have agreed to nearly a 10% pay cut.
But in Seoul, the acrimony seems personal.
According to the JoongAng Daily, Hahm clashed with musicians in 2006 when members of the Daejeon Philharmonic Orchestra petitioned against the renewal of his contract as conductor.
Hahm's supporters say the Seoul orchestra needs a shakeup and that its quality suffered only after members began breaking the limit of eight hours of outside activities, taking on private lessons and lectures.
"When the conductor tried to switch around members according to skill, members opposed and this situation occurred," a representative of KBS' cultural events division said. "The members do not have any thought to put on a good performance and just want to keep their seats."
Hahm, in the meantime, remains steadfast.
"There can't be an orchestra that disregards the conductor's instructions," he said.
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: Detroit Symphony Orchestra members called a strike after refusing to accept pay cuts of more than 30% demanded by the financially struggling orchestra. Credit: Paul Sancya / Associated Press