The Unlikely Story of How the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra Came Back to Life

Five years after declaring bankruptcy, the newly renamed Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra is not only on budget, it’s traveling to perform on the Neighbor Islands again, hosting internationally renowned guest musicians and attracting new audiences. What happened?


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The Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra performed two holiday pops concerts in December.

THE HAWAI‘I SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMED TWO HOLIDAY POPS CONCERTS IN DECEMBER.
PHOTOS: KENT NISHIMURA

 

In 2009, after more than 100 years, the Honolulu Symphony succumbed to insurmountable financial struggles and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Despite the board of directors’ best efforts to turn things around and a hope-filled reorganization plan, one year later, the symphony converted to liquidation. Now, five years later, the renamed Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra is not only on budget, it’s traveling to perform on the neighbor Islands again, hosting internationally renowned guest musicians and attracting new audiences with its musicthatPOPS series. What happened?

 

On a warm December evening, small groups gather outside the Blaisdell Concert Hall.

 

It doesn’t quite feel like the holidays yet, except for a few trolleys decked out in multicolored lights that roll by, jolly riders belting out carols as they pass. All else is calm, but there’s a quiet excitement as the doors open and people start to filter into the lobby for Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra’s Holiday Pops concert.

 

Inside the hall, there’s a wash of “ooh”s as everyone looks up and sees bright snowflakes projected above the stage, red lights and festive decorations galore. As at other concerts, the audience is made up of season ticket holders and newcomers alike, a largely older crowd peppered with a few young faces in the mostly full hall.

 

On stage, the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra awaits guest conductor Rob Fisher, a musical theater Grammy-nominated music producer, director, conductor and pianist. As he begins, the musicians move as one, their fingers in sync with the reverberating sounds that fill the hall. Since this concert is part of HSO’s musicthatPOPS series, many of the songs are well-known hits and modern pieces, including music from movies The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Polar Express and Home Alone. The orchestra even sings along and strikes glass jars with spoons during “Jingle Bells.” Hawaiian music trio Na Leo Pilimehana joins the orchestra for the second half of the evening, which also includes a hula performance by kumu Kapua Dalire-Moe. It’s quite a show, offering audiences much more than symphony classics.

 

The performance ends with a sing-along of “Mele Kalikimaka” and two standing ovations from the audience. On such a successful night, one might never guess that, exactly five years before, the orchestra called it quits and went silent after more than a century as Hawai‘i’s premier symphony.

 

Members of the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra rehearse with guest conductor Rob Fisher.

Members of the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra rehearse with guest conductor Rob Fisher.

 

The aughts were unkind to the Honolulu Symphony. After more than 40 years of performing at the Blaisdell Concert Hall, built specifically with the symphony in mind in 1964, the first major sign that things were heading downhill came when Disney’s Broadway blockbuster The Lion King took over the space for three months during the 2007–2008 season. Performing in alternate venues cost the Honolulu Symphony Society—the organization that managed the symphony—more and brought in less. For 11 weeks, there just wasn’t enough money to pay the orchestra, so the musicians played for free.

 

Then came the recession. 

 

Donor dollars dried up, fewer people attended concerts, and the musicians took pay cuts and gave up their benefits to make ends meet. With a budget of around $8 million, plus mounting debt from seasons past, even a $2.7 million advance from the Honolulu Symphony Foundation couldn’t get the Honolulu Symphony Society out of the hole. Contract negotiations with the musicians union soured and, by 2009, it was more than $1 million in debt.

 

In an attempt to reorganize and come up with a new financial plan, the society filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy that December. One year later, in 2010, instead of presenting its new plan for moving forward, HSS converted to Chapter 7 liquidation and put its assets up for auction. Just like that, the Honolulu Symphony was no more.

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