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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Photos: Kent Nishimura
It was a great loss,” says Ignace “Iggy” Jang, concertmaster of the orchestra. Like many of the musicians, he moved to Hawai‘i specifically for this job and thought there was enough support to sustain a symphony of its caliber. “We agreed to take a lot of cuts at the end of the Honolulu Symphony, expecting that things would help.” The first bankruptcy filing was meant to be a time of regrouping, but the organization’s eventual demise turned into a double blow to the musicians, and many of them left the Islands. “In all the places I’ve been, it’s not just a privilege to have a symphony in your environment, it’s a right,” says Jang, who grew up in France and was living on the Mainland until he moved here in 1997. For two and a half years, Hawai‘i was the only state in the country that didn’t have a professional orchestra. “What I found out later is a lot of people in the community missed it. But then, if you don’t have something, at first people start to miss it, but then they forget about it.”
Vicky Cayetano, president and CEO of United Laundry Services and current vice chair of the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra board of directors, knew that supporters needed to act swiftly if they were going to start up again. “There are a number of reasons why the symphony is valuable besides going to concerts and enjoying these wonderful artists,” she says. “They’re the backbone of music education for our children, and, I think, Hawai‘i being such a tourist destination as well, it’s important to be able to offer our visitors high music quality.”
The Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra’s executive director, Jonathan Parrish, credits Cayetano with being the first community leader, along with HMAA’s John Henry Felix, to meet with the musicians as far back as 2009, to begin discussing a way forward. “We have to have an orchestra,” he says. “It provides a critical mass of talent that makes many other things possible,” such as the Hawai‘i Youth Symphony, the opera and ballet, Chamber Music Hawai‘i, choral music, faculty at UH and HPU. There’s a ripple effect, Parrish says. By his estimate, about one-fourth of the current orchestra is made up of musicians from Hawai‘i. “Our auditions are anonymous and behind a screen. They’re international. That such a significant portion of the orchestra is a Hawai‘i product speaks to the value of the many decades of having a professional orchestra in town.”
Revival of the symphony began with a diverse group of community and business leaders led by Paul Kosasa, president and CEO of ABC Stores, Cayetano, and others, including Oswald Stender, Mark Polivka, Ken Robbins, Mona Abadir, John Koga and Mitch D’Olier. After Chapter 11, “We very informally got together and asked ourselves a question: Should Honolulu, as a city of its size and population, have a professional resident orchestra? The answer was yes,” Kosasa says. But before a solution could be reached, HSS had converted to Chapter 7, so the new plan was to acquire the Honolulu Symphony’s assets, which were to be auctioned. They bid for all of the assets, the most important being the music library, which consisted of hundreds of scores, including unique and rare arrangements. “We were kind of worried that we might lose the bid,” Kosasa says, “but, as it turned out, we were the only bidder,” at $210,000, provided by the Kosasa Foundation. They also acquired instruments. “Then we had to figure out, now what? That’s where Steve Monder came in.”
Monder, former president of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, flew to Honolulu to advise the Symphony Exploratory Committee on how to revive an organization that had crashed so hard it left a bad taste in the mouths of the musicians and the community. He signed on as president of the board of directors and, after they’d worked out a collective-bargaining agreement with the musicians union and received some money from the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, the new Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra performed a few concerts.
“We had a very, very rough start,” says Kosasa—now chair of the board of directors—including a bare-bones staff and a shortened first season in early 2012, and “we still ended up in debt. A couple of board members lent money to clear our debt, and then the following year, we went dormant. We had to just reorganize ourselves again.”
The next step was hiring an executive director. “At the time the symphony shut down, I was an elected representative of the musicians, and I was the spokesperson for the musicians during the bankruptcy time,” Parrish says. “I think the fact that I’m now the executive director indicates there’s a great deal of cooperation going on between the board and the musicians and the musicians association.” And that meant a big change in his own career. “I took the job and gave up performing—which was not easy, I’ve had a 30-year performing career and that’s the way I’ve made my living for many years—to do this because I felt it was really important and I was in a unique position to be able to have a positive impact.”
And he has. Parrish has taken the orchestra places it hasn’t been in many, many years, including Kailua and the Neighbor Islands. “We want to live up to our name as the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra,” he says, which means more performances throughout the state. The symphony used to perform regularly on Kaua‘i, and was one of the first groups allowed to visit the island after Hurricane ‘Iniki. The orchestra held a free concert there for 5,000 people. It was finally able to return to the Neighbor Islands this season. “The great challenge is rebuilding confidence in the idea of an orchestra.”