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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Angel donors and the symphony foundation made up for the missing paychecks, but the board still had to renegotiate a contract with the union. “There were three factors that could have been adjusted to make this orchestra sustainable: season length, salaries and benefits,” says Wong, who is also a union member and was first hired as a pianist with the symphony in 1974. “The union controlled these factors through its collective-bargaining agreement, always arguing that the society needed to raise more money, never conceding that the agreement might be too expensive.” Honolulu Symphony musicians are not unique in having to supplement their incomes by teaching in the off-season; contract kerfuffles are playing out at symphonies across the nation.
Shaindlin calls it “contract creep,” adding, that the institution was created to enrich the arts community and provide Honolulu with live, symphonic music. “It was not founded for the primary purpose of creating jobs.”
To the board, and some of its donors, the union’s public criticisms of Mechling and the society board further eroded empathy. “Frankly, I am more distressed that the orchestra musicians cannot seem to appreciate the reality of the situation and work with the society to come to some sort of solution than I am about the cancellation of the season and the [bankruptcy] filing,” says Valerie Ossipoff, a long-time symphony donor and a soprano with the Honolulu Symphony Chorus, which performed with the symphony.
To their credit, the musicians continued to go all out with their performances. In December 2009, they performed Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at the Blaisdell; last October they played to a packed house in Saint Andrew’s. The musicians also started Concert Chats, a short set followed by Q&A about the symphony’s situation in supporters’ homes and in churches, as well as ensemble performances in its state-of-the-art recording studio, next to the union’s offices. “They’ve been very informative,” says Claire Shimabukuro, a 58-year-old symphony attendee and the executive director of Hawaii Meals on Wheels. She felt so strongly about supporting the musicians, she challenged her staff and the nonprofit’s board to donate, and all of them did. “Live music is important for the well being of the entire community, it’s not only for the intellectual or the well-heeled.”
Was it the fighting?
The Chapter 11 bankruptcy sharpened the already strained relations between the symphony board and the musicians union. But, says Shaindlin, the squabbling wasn’t new. When he became the chair in 2008, he noticed the friction immediately and spoke with former chairs going back 30 years. Their response was always the same: The board and the union didn’t get along. Many times, the roller-coaster relationship between the board and the union depended on where the organization was financially.
“Emotions run high … but I feel you have to be able to set [them] aside in order to assess the situation with any clarity,” says Wong. “When the society and the union are both focused on putting our community first, the healing can begin.”
The symphony’s ups and downs were understandably wrought with emotion, if only because of everyone’s passion for the organization. But it’s always been art versus business, says Ossipoff, also a former board member. Our symphony isn’t alone. The Savannah Symphony in Georgia filed for Chapter 7 liquidation in 2003. Today, many of its musicians have left and the city is still without a symphony. In South Carolina, the Charleston Symphony suspended its operations last March and cancelled its 2010 season. As of press time, the musicians of the Detroit Symphony, in a labor dispute with the organization’s management, have been on strike since last October. The Honolulu Symphony has picketed, too. In 1986, the musicians went on a 15-week strike demanding higher pay and a set number of performance weeks.
The Honolulu Symphony’s troubles meant many groups and individuals didn’t want to talk to us. The HSS Associates, a volunteer group, deferred comment to the society. Even other arts organizations shied away. “You won’t find out anything the paper hasn’t already published. Your February story is really bad timing for the Hawaii Opera Theatre,” says Juliana LaReaux, the public relations for Hawaii Opera Theatre, which contracts with the symphony musicians. Both Mechling and Frank were hard to track down for interviews. Of those who went on record, some became increasingly elusive, especially after the Chapter 7 conversion. When rumors of the conversion emerged, several board members plainly stated that the rumors weren’t true—then had little to say to us when it turned out they were.