The Day the Honolulu Symphony Died
We had a front-row seat at the implosion of the 110-year-old Honolulu Symphony. Here's how it all went down.
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The deep ringing of the Saint Andrew’s Cathedral bells drift downward into the damp parking lot on a cool winter evening. Inside, the mood is light, as the concertgoers kiss hello before taking their seats in stern wooden pews—some even bring their own seat cushions and lauhala fans—and vie for spots not obscured by the cathedral’s obtrusive white pillars. Most of the 52 pews are peppered with attendees in their 60s; typing on their iPhones, the younger patrons stand out.
No one minds the musicians as they warm up on their trumpets, trombones, horns, clarinets and oboes on the cathedral’s chancel. The conversations soon quiet as the Saint Andrew’s organ player introduces the Chamber Music Hawaii ensembles. The program features 19 musicians from the brass and wind choirs. They perform arrangements by Giovanni Gabrieli, Michael Praetorius and, after an intermission with free cookies and apple cider, “Serenade No. 10,” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The notes fill the cathedral without the help of microphones, commanding the audience’s attention (even if several people grow noticeably more uncomfortable in the pews). The audience rises to its feet in standing ovation as the musicians smile and bow.
The chamber musicians—who also play with the Honolulu Symphony—appreciate the applause, but it’s not the same. They are in an old, Anglican church, not on the stage of the Neal S. Blaisdell Concert Hall, in tuxedos and flowing black gowns, in front of an audience of more than 2,000. It’s Dec. 6, the last CMH concert of 2010, and just seven days before the Honolulu Symphony will convert to Chapter 7 liquidation, lowering the curtain on its 110-year history. It’d been one year since the Honolulu Symphony Society (HSS), which manages and fundraises for the symphony, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. What were the organization’s chances of successfully reemerging, we wondered? We spent the winter talking to board members, the musicians union and symphony donors. The board had in the works what it conceived as a revolutionary maneuver to save the organization, of which you’ve probably never heard. The union, frustrated with the HSS, felt confident new leadership would rise up from within the arts community. Classical music lovers just missed hearing the live, symphonic pieces. Today, all that’s left is the memory of the symphony, with no viable prospects of hearing the 64-piece orchestra play again. Who killed the symphony?
Was it the board?
No one would argue that the symphony performances weren’t chicken-skin experiences; ours was a nationally recognized orchestra, its members received a Grammy nomination and also recorded the soundtrack to Princess Kaiulani. But playing Mozart or Bach wasn’t enough to generate buzz at the box office. Unlike their Europe counterparts, American symphonies don’t receive significant government funding and rely on donors—both individuals and businesses—to put their musicians on stage. In recent years, the HSS faced a mounting debt, compounded by a growing season budget, which hovered between $8 million and $9 million. Anonymous angel donors, whose multimillion-dollar, last-minute donations had brought the symphony back into the black, were being more selective with their gifts because of the recession. Even worse, the society witnessed dwindling ticket sales, which, at best, covered only 30 percent of the budget. In fact, the symphony hadn’t sold out a performance in about 10 years; on average only 400 to 600 paying ticket-holders filled the Blaisdell’s 2,158 seats for each performance.
“I think the board has the responsibility, ultimately, for the success and failure of the organization … Clearly, the one thing that wasn’t broken with the organization was the product,” says Jonathan Parrish, the general manager of CMH, the union spokesperson and a symphony French horn player.
The most recent board, made up of powerhouse business people, was charged with fundraising in a gloomy economy, not to mention carrying about $4 million in debt. “It’s not like every season we were starting fresh,” says Kimberly Miyazawa Frank, then HSS board chair, who also juggled being a mother to three young children and an account executive at Hastings & Pleadwell. “Every season, not only did we need to raise $8 million, we needed to pay a couple of million back in debt. The board had to make the hard decision to say no more, we cannot afford to do business this way.”
The society looked to the Honolulu Symphony Foundation (HSF) for financial support. The HSF is an independent endowment organization, which oversees several funds. (Even today it has between $8 million and $10 million in its pockets.) The foundation ended up advancing $2.7 million to the society in 2009, but with a few caveats: The society had to present a balanced budget, including a 30-60-90-day business plan, and the board had to find a new executive director to replace Tom Gulick. The money kept the symphony afloat, including paying months of back wages to the musicians.
The 2009-2010 season started on a high note, including guest performances by banjoist Béla Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer. But the excitement was short-lived; three weeks in, the symphony society cancelled the remainder of its shows. (This was after musicians agreed to a 15 percent pay cut for the season.) Then, in December 2009, the board took a vote, and, minus the two musician representatives, agreed to file for bankruptcy. The meeting left many dejected. “When we took that final vote, people cried. Many of the musicians are our friends, our kids’ [music] teachers,” says Frank, whose daughter takes violin lessons from a symphony musician.