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Seeking harmony

Tragedy helped Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra chief executive Michael MacLeod finesse a talent for dealing with setbacks

In his first job, Michael MacLeod helped to manage the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. On one occasion, the orchestra thought it had achieved a real coup by getting David Oistrakh, then perhaps the world’s most famous violinist, to play with them. But then tragic events threw these plans into disarray.

“The Scottish Chamber Orchestra was a new orchestra. They wanted a big star. They booked Oistrakh and he was going to play two violin concertos and conduct,” MacLeod says. “Then he died three days before the concert. So we learned how to deal with getting a replacement quickly.”

MacLeod has dealt with numerous crises like this during his career. His talent for solving problems and leading teams has helped him successfully manage some of the world’s most famous orchestras and cultural events. Now, as the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra’s chief executive, he aims to lead it to similar success.

MacLeod has been interested in music since childhood, but he was also an all-rounder, good at sports and other subjects. His broad interests led him to study liberal arts at Amherst College in the US. It was somewhat by chance that he then pursued a career related to his passion for music.

“After I graduated, I went to Paris. I had no idea what I was going to do professionally. I happened to be reading [British newspaper] The Daily Telegraph and saw a job advertised as librarian and assistant orchestral manager for what was then called the Scottish Philharmonic Society [and I applied],” he says.

To his surprise, he got the job. The position involved helping manage the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Scottish Opera, and Scottish Ballet, and MacLeod soon found that he loved working in classical music. “I realised this was my calling,” he says.

The role gave him excellent training in the skills needed to manage an orchestra. “I learned a lot about the business,” he says. “I learned about touring and recording. I learned about the psychology of orchestras and musicians, and got to meet many great soloists and conductors.”

In particular, through situations like Oistrakh’s sudden death, he learned to deal with unexpected events – a vital skill for an orchestra manager. “Most of the problems in this business are dealing with a crisis, not with good news,” he explains.

After four years in Scotland, MacLeod moved to London to help start a student training orchestra for the University of London. This gave him experience in building up a team. “We recruited a different orchestra every year,” he says. MacLeod’s input helped the orchestra develop into a successful organisation which worked with and fostered some of classical music’s biggest names.

Word about his talents spread and he was asked whether, alongside the training orchestra, he could also manage the world-renowned Amadeus Quartet. He managed the quartet for nine years, overseeing numerous successful tours until it disbanded in 1987.

After five years with the training orchestra, MacLeod then took a job as general manager of John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir. Managing the choir for just over a decade, he again helped it achieve much success. “We probably made more recordings than the Berlin Philharmonic,” he says. “We toured literally all over the world.”

The role frequently tested MacLeod’s problem-solving skills. On one occasion, the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris fell out with Gardiner and said it would no longer host his performance of Don Giovanni. “I had to find somewhere else that had the money and the resources to rehearse a fully staged opera and do the performances,” he says. Luckily, a friend suggested that Parma, in Italy, had a beautiful opera house. “So I took the train to Parma. I knocked on the door and talked my way in, then talked them into doing Don Giovanni in 1994 and The Magic Flute in 1995.”

On another occasion, they spent three years planning to film a performance in Venice’s St Mark’s Square, only to see things almost collapse at the last minute. “Two things happened,” MacLeod says. “First, the BBC went on strike for two days and we could not film. We caught up by filming through the night on the fourth day … then somebody left a hungry dog out that kept barking.”

After 12 years with the Monteverdi Choir, MacLeod then worked as artistic director of the City of London Festival. This challenged him to learn about other types of culture. He went to performances virtually every night to discover new talent.

In 2001 he moved to the US, wanting to accompany his partner at the time, and took a role as executive director of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra. He managed this orchestra for four years. He then became general and artistic director of the annual summer festival Glimmerglass Opera, a role he found frustrating because US audiences weren’t open to discovering new music. “In America, it’s sad – they need to have to have the most famous operas,” he says. “I wasn’t so interested in programming popular opera.”

He was later offered the chief executive post by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and, feeling that it would be good to add Asia to the list of places he had worked, moved to Hong Kong in 2011.

MacLeod tries to provide balance for the orchestra’s staff by giving them freedom and making sure they’re moving in the right direction. “My role is not to have a meddling oversight, but to make sure all opportunities are maximised by all parties,” he says. “So if I see an opportunity for an interesting artistic project, I will propose it.”

He feels the Hong Kong Philharmonic is already a strong organisation, but can develop further and achieve more success. “There is so much potential here. We are very good and I think we can be even better and do more enterprising things,” he says. “I believe in the power of the conductor, and with Jaap van Zweden as our music director, we’re in great hands.”

He points out that the orchestra hasn’t been outside China or made a recording in over 10 years. He feels it needs to both tour and record more to make a name for itself and has begun by arranging a major tour of Europe for early 2015.

For the Hong Kong Philharmonic to realise its full potential and achieve even greater success, it needs a leader adept at managing people and solving problems. Based on MacLeod’s past record, it currently has the ideal person for the task.


Michael MacLeod reveals his two most important leadership principles.

Be careful with control  “There are two extreme ways of being a leader. One is to be a total dictator and to order everybody about. That is not my style. The other way is to collaborate with your team and give them room to take pride in what they do.”

Face up to responsibility  “When things go right, I like to give employees the credit. When things go wrong, people say that senior management has to take the blame, but I think that’s the wrong word. Senior management has to take the responsibility.”