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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.


(page 2 of 4)

Ethan Pernala (left) Violist, joined the symphony in 2007. Joanna Morrison Pernela (right) Cellist, joined the symphony in 2007.

Photos: David Croxford

But friendship didn’t lessen the blow to the musicians. “We wished it would never have happened,” says James Moffitt, the symphony’s associate principal bass clarinetist for almost 30 years, and the president of CMH. “We would have liked to have avoided it.”

Peter Shaindlin, former board member and Frank’s predecessor as chair, thought of the bankruptcy filing as a catch-22; the board didn’t want to file and cancel the season, but it also didn’t want to put the musicians on stage knowing they wouldn’t get paid. “We looked at every option,” says the Halekūlani COO. “If we stayed status quo, we wouldn’t have money to pay the musicians and the staff. We’d collapse.” It’s not like the symphony hadn’t come close to this before. The 1993-1994 season was nixed after the musicians rejected the society’s proposal of wage cuts and layoffs. That next year the core musicians performed as the independent Hawaii Symphony.

Under the bankruptcy court’s protection, the HSS had to file and get approval on a sustainable reorganization plan. During the first half of 2010, it attempted to renegotiate contracts with the union, which meant drastically lowering the annual budget, mainly comprising the musicians’ payroll. The board proposed pay cuts and benefit reductions that, for some musicians, would have meant going from a season salary of roughly $38,000 to about $3,300. “Professional musicians can’t live on that,” says Brien Matson, the union president and a jazz trombonist who performed in the symphony’s pops concerts. “You can’t attract musicians to move to Hawaii with that, nobody would audition.” The union submitted counter offers, but no agreement was reached.

Tim Leong, Violinist, joined the symphony in 1981.

In its defense, the board backed up its budget-slashing propositions with a 200-page organizational analysis (with thousands of pages worth of additional material) spearheaded by Mark Wong, the chair of the Honolulu Symphony Foundation, as well as the chair and co-founder of Commercial Data Systems. From November 2009 to March 2010, the company collected hundreds of documents from national arts and orchestra organizations, Honolulu Symphony donor statistics, city demographics and information from 100 Mainland orchestras, including in-depth analyses of six cities similar to Honolulu. Researchers interviewed symphony executive directors, conductors, managers and employees going back 30 years. In short, CDS put the Honolulu Symphony and the city itself under a metaphorical microscope.

According to the report, the Honolulu Symphony could realistically solicit and operate with a budget between $2.3 million and $3.1 million. Concertgoer statistics also showed that, from 1998 to 2008, the symphony attendance dropped 70 percent, from almost 216,000 to roughly 65,000, not enough to sustain a healthy 29-week season.

“We knew our [original] budget was too big, because we couldn’t raise it,” says Frank. “We had out-spent our market.” In becoming the board chair, Frank admits she wasn’t fully aware of how much trouble the symphony was in. She knew it was bad, but not that bad. To many, attending the symphony is a luxury. The drop in attendance could signal lifestyle—or financial—changes. Some loyal attendees may have even passed away, as the symphony traditionally draws in an older crowd.

"We have an incredible orchestra from an artistic standpoint. But great sound costs a lot of money." Majken Mechling, Former Honolulu Symphony Society Executive Director

Photo: Courtesy of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Was it Majken Mechling?

In September 2009, the board hired Majken Mechling, much to the union’s chagrin. Mechling had almost 12 years of large-nonprofit management experience, as the former executive director of both the American Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. But the musicians union had a problem with her “complete lack of experience in the performing arts,” says Parrish.

“My role was to be the reality check for the organization and that’s not a popular role, under the best of circumstances, but certainly not in the last year,” says Mechling, a tall woman with light blue eyes. She has a deep appreciation of classical music, but acknowledges that she’s an “artistic ignoramus.” Mechling’s first priority was to investigate the financials. “When you have a legacy like we have, 110 years of providing music to the community, you don’t want to believe that it’s possible that it might not be around forever. Traditionally, we had survived, but we spent so much time surviving, we lost sight of the future.”

As Mechling quickly found out, the symphony was in deep kimchee. Whether its members admitted it or not, the union knew it, too. However, to them, Mechling’s hiring was still problematic. Barely three months into her new job, the society cancelled what would become the symphony’s final season and filed for bankruptcy. Some musicians also took issue with Mechling’s $175,000 salary, when they were being asked to take pay cuts.

“You have to know the product,” Parrish says of being a symphony executive director. “It’d be like hiring an athletic director for UH who has never been involved in athletics. How can you run an athletic program if you don’t even know the rules of football or basketball?”
“I appreciate that a lot of musicians want to put the demise of the organization at my feet,” she says. “I would like to think I was that talented, to flush 110 years of an organization that quickly into the mess it’s in, but the reality is, it was that way before I got there; I was just the first person to speak about it publicly.”

Today, the union no longer has to deal with Mechling, nor she them. But the dissolved relationship doesn’t do anyone any good now that there is no symphony  to revive. Sadly, the musicians and Mechling now have one thing in common, they are all out
of jobs.

Was it the union?

Parrish sits at the union’s conference table in a time-warp of an office, with its shag, bright-green carpet and dated wood furniture—the union has been at the Kapiolani office since 1969—where the musician members meet. Parrish has performed with the symphony since 1998. Pushing his fine, brown hair away from his wire-rim glasses, he explains that things really went downhill—at least in recent symphony history—in 2007, when The Lion King came into town, eating up the first half of the symphony’s season. (The concert hall, which opened in 1964, was built to provide a permanent home for the symphony, and for years the HSS ran it.) The society scrambled to provide other venues, such as the smaller Hawaii Theatre or Mamiya Theatre. The changes resulted in additional venue costs, lower revenue and 11 weeks of missed payroll.

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