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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Was it the board’s failed reorganization?
When the collective-bargaining agreement with the union gridlocked last July, the board decided to develop a new reorganization plan. It was a Plan B, and, given that most board members had stopped working with the union, it seemed like a feasible alternative. It was also a way to fulfill the society’s mission. The board dubbed Plan B, “The Way Forward.” You may not have heard of The Way Forward, but it was enthusiastically presented to us as the solution to save the symphony.
Under the new plan, the society envisioned switching gears from managing a resident symphony to booking touring symphonies the likes of the Tokyo or Seoul philharmonic orchestras, to play at the Blaisdell and other state venues, creating a more robust education program and reaching out to younger generations who don’t relate to symphony music. And all this with an annual budget of $1.7 million the first year, increasing to $2.7 million by year three—much less than previous budgets.
The HSS felt Honolulu could no longer sustain a resident symphony, which, given declining donations and subscribers, and the current recession, wasn’t a completely inaccurate assessment. Instead, it would work with symphonies that planned to tour and coordinate a Hawaii visit; the board wanted to create corporate partnerships with travel and hospitality companies to defray costs.
The union heard whisperings of the idea, and naturally disagreed. “A touring orchestra won’t serve the community,” says Parrish. “It’s not a viable solution or a replacement for having a resident, professional orchestra.” But the board planned for the traveling symphonies to stay in Hawaii for more than a week, performing as ensembles and soloists at schools, universities and community centers statewide. This year, Mechling had hoped to have one or two orchestras fly over.
The Way Forward also included an educational component called El Sistema, (“The System”), started by a musician in Venezuela. The program—originally slated for a September 2011 start date—would have provided children, particularly those from low-income families, increased access to classical music in the classroom. “It’s not just classical music for children, it’s a social justice program,” said Shaindlin. “This is a deeper program than the society ever had before in terms of education.”
But none of this happened. The board says it had to convert to Chapter 7 because “the society was unable to reach an agreement with the musicians union,” according to its press release. But negotiations broke down last summer and the board continued pursuing The Way Forward right up to the Chapter 7 filing. Why was it dropped then? “We just weren’t confident that we would be able to, in the near future, come up with a plan and budget that would be sustainable,” says Frank later. Maybe The Way Forward was more expensive than the board thought. Maybe sponsorships fell through. We’ll never really know, and now it hardly matters.
On Monday, Dec. 13, the day the HSS was to receive a court date to present The Way Forward, it converted to Chapter 7 liquidation. Musicians and the media crammed into the Bishop Street courtroom. While several musicians hung around afterward, Mechling, Frank and the HSS lawyers quickly ducked out. “Today was not a surprise,” says Norman Foster, a 25-year symphony clarinetist.
Many weren’t surprised—except perhaps us; we were told by the society it would be presenting its Plan B—but, for some, the liquidation provided closure to a bankruptcy that had painfully dragged on. As of press time, Richard Yanagi, the Chapter 7 trustee in charge with liquidating the assets, was working with a company to auction off almost $780,000 worth of instruments and sheet music. He’s heard rumors of people wanting to revive the symphony, but, so far, no one has approached him. In the end, it was the perfect storm: dropping ticket sales, increasing debt, bad blood between the board and the union, a sour economy and a reorganization plan that couldn’t get off the ground. Everyone involved could have done something different—maybe with the next symphony.