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
To do that, HSO had to start performing, whether there was enough money to sustain a full season or not. Kosasa says they took the risk because they felt that, if they could present something to audiences and get some exposure, show people that the symphony was back and managed properly, they could get some support. It worked and, along with some donations, grants started coming in.
For the past three years, each season has ended in the black, all debts settled. “That’s what our objective is, so we don’t carry over the deficit. That’s kind of what got the last organization, I think, into some problems,” Cayetano says. They’ve accomplished this by holding concerts less frequently. “In the process of doing that, the budget was reduced very significantly,” to around $3 million or $4 million. The staff has also been reduced to be more efficient and leave the majority of the budget to the musicians’ salaries.
“The musicians did make a huge sacrifice,” Kosasa says. “They basically cut their salaries in half. Compared to a full season, they’re really only doing half seasons. To their credit, they’re hanging in there.” Of the 72 musicians employed by the Symphony before the bankruptcy, 48 remain, with fewer than 10 resigning (others have taken leaves of absence, retired or passed away). Jang says there isn’t enough consistent work for everyone to come back full time, especially those with families, but the symphony is rebuilding, hiring replacements as auditions continue.
Fundraising pays for most of HSO’s operations (about 65 percent), but they also have to sell concert tickets to be successful. To appeal to more diverse audiences, HSO began the musicthatPOPS series, which this season has included a performance of The Nightmare Before Christmas’ entire score while the film was projected onscreen, and Disney in Concert: Tale As Old as Time. That’s on top of the Halekūlani Masterworks, which brings in world-class guests including soprano Sumi Jo and guitarist Pablo Villegas to accompany performances of classics from Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Tchaikovsky and more. Even with these guests, the star is still the orchestra. Cayetano says, “Even Pablo Villegas said that to the audience— ‘You have such an outstanding group of musicians behind me.’ And sometimes, if we [don’t] have the opportunity to hear other artists, we don’t realize how good our musicians are.”
The orchestra’s mission also includes reaching out to the community. “Every year, we’ve been able to serve more students,” Parrish says. “We visit schools with small ensembles and we hope to soon begin to bring students to the concert hall to experience the orchestra.” There are also $13 student rush tickets to concerts. “We’re finding as many ways as we can to broaden our educational work. It’s certainly a very important part of what we want to accomplish,” along with serving all demographics and socioeconomic levels.
We’re a different board, a different organization,” Kosasa says. “We’re a startup,” an odd fact, considering the symphony’s 115-year history.
“That’s one of the challenges,” Parrish says. “People see the concerts and they assume the symphony is back. But it’s not quite that simple.” The Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra virtually started from scratch, not even knowing the names or contact information of former season ticket holders, so there was no way to reach out to them. It’s going to take time to build that support back up, and the orchestra is in constant need of donations to survive. But it’s gotten very organized in rebuilding its support network. For instance, if you purchase tickets to the symphony online, you’ll soon receive a fundraising packet in the mail, explaining the different donor levels and the benefits of giving. The pitch: “The more you give, the more we give back.”