A Second Chance for the Honolulu Symphony?

David Croxford

If all goes according to plan, the 64-member orchestra will once again take the stage of the Neal S. Blaisdell Concert Hall this summer as the newly revamped Honolulu Symphony. Less than six months ago, the former Honolulu Symphony Society lowered the curtain on its 110-year history, after engaging in an emotional year-long Chapter 11 bankruptcy that morphed into a last-minute Chapter 7 liquidation.

Enter the Symphony Exploratory Committee. Led by Oswald Stender, an Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee and former symphony fundraiser, the committee recently became a 501(c)3. It comprises influential business people, including Paul Kosasa, president of ABC Stores, Vicky Cayetano, president of the United Laundry Service Inc. and attorney Ken Robbins, among others. 

“We’re putting together a financial model and business plan,” says Stender. “We hope to have it in place in a couple of weeks and then we’ll go public and launch a campaign [to raise awareness and fundraise].”

You can’t have a symphony without instruments or sheet music, and the committee has a plan for that too—it is set to buy the former symphony’s holdings as a whole. Last Tuesday, March 8, Richard Yanagi, the Chapter 7 trustee for the symphonic organization’s assets, agreed to sell everything to the fledgling group for $231,000. Assets include the symphony name itself, the former donor list, the entire music library, some office equipment and instruments, including two grand pianos, one harp, four snare drums, six Chinese gongs and two pairs of kalaau sticks.

Although it looks likely that the Symphony Exploratory Committee will end up with the assets to rebuild the symphony—no one else has expressed serious interest—they’ve still got to go through the motions of an open auction. Per bankruptcy proceedings, an auction will take place this Thursday, March 17 at 10 a.m. in a Waikïkï Resort Hotel ballroom, conducted by Heritage Global Partners (of which will receive $21,000 of the agreed $231,000 for holding the auction).

“We’re very hopeful,” says Stender, adding that each member of the committee is spending personal money to purchase the assets. The bankruptcy court still has to approve the final sale, but Yanagi doesn’t foresee any obstacles. 

“It’s an excellent group of people,” says Jonathan Parrish, the musicians union spokesperson and a French horn player with the former Honolulu Symphony. “The community needs to support this effort. A community without an orchestra is a community without a soul.”

A Hopeful Reincarnation

Purchasing the music library and the accompanying instruments is just the first hurdle for the Symphony Exploratory Committee. The members have to devise a stellar business plan, or the symphony is doomed to fail for a second time. The committee is still ironing out the details for the new symphony’s improved business model, but he stresses that openness is key. “Transparency has been a problem. There’s been problems between the management and the musicians,” he says. “We need to address those things and run the symphony like a business.” Stender says that he’s met with the musicians and Mark Wong, the chair of the Honolulu Symphony Foundation (which maintains between $8 million to $10 million in endowment funds). Once the business plan is finalized, the committee will meet with the former Honolulu Symphony Society board members to get their input. He adds that they will also sit down with Mayor Peter Carlisle’s administration, as well as the opera and ballet organizations. “This business plan needs a symphony support group,” he says, which also includes community members, and on a consultant basis, Steven Monder, the former president of the Cincinnati Symphony President.

“We’re looking towards a brighter future,” says Parrish. “The past is behind us.”

The symphony’s business model needs a vigorous overhaul, but the symphony’s original structure will largely remain the same. An executive director will still manage the musicians, a new board will run the business side of the organization. The management and the musicians union will still have to negotiate a contract for its performers. The symphony will still hold their concerts at the Blaisdell, although the concerts might not follow a traditional, 29-week season. Musicians will continue to perform for the opera and ballet. Education in schools and with the Hawaii Youth Symphony will remain important components, too.

This means that the Symphony will face many of the same old financial stumbling blocks. It’s still going to take a significant amount of cash to keep everything afloat. You might wonder how the committee will achieve this, especially given that the former symphony’s ticket sales and donations were declining for years. The former symphony society’s organizational analysis estimated Honolulu could realistically support a symphony with an annual budget between $2.3 million and $3.1 million (much less than the former Honolulu Symphony’s more-than-$8 million annual budgets).

Despite his and the committee’s obvious passion, Stender is realistic. “No symphony can live off the box office,” he says. (In the best of times, ticket sales cover only 30 percent of the budget.) “We need an annual fund membership and community participation to generate wide support. We need to work with the city to get a commitment to [have the symphony musicians] perform regularly.” No small feats.

Stender says some musicians originally approached him during the Chapter 11 bankruptcy. After the liquidation, he felt encouraged to help pick up the pieces and rebuild the orchestra and searched for likeminded business people in the community. While the committee includes powerful business members in the community, they still face criticism from some of their peers. “People ask me why I’m doing this,” he says. “To me, it’s so important I gotta give it my best shot. There are a lot of committed people involved. I want to prove the critics wrong.”


What’s Up for Auction?

While most of the former symphony musicians own their own instruments, the Honolulu Symphony Society owned about 250 other musical items—all housed at the Neal S. Blaisdell Center Concert Hall—including accompanying symphonic instruments, music stands and instrument cases. In total the items are worth $334,915. Below is a sampling of what is available for purchase.

•    6 Chinese gongs, with stands
•    1 harp
•    17 mallets
•    2 grand pianos
•    7 cowbells
•    11 bird call whistles
•    6 woodblocks
•    1 sleigh bell
•    1 washboard
•    1 xylophone
•    4 snare drums, 3 snare stands
•    9 cymbal stands
•    1 toomba

 Music for Sale

The music library, comprising roughly 1,170 pieces is worth $442,344.50. It includes Christmas carols, Bach concertos, Beethoven concertos and symphonies, “What the World Needs Now,” by Burt Bacharach, Brahms, Chopin, Gounod, Haydn, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Mozart, Romeo and Juliet suites, Peter and the Wolf, Sousa marches, John Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Don Quixote suite, Vivaldi, Star Wars and Jaws by John Williams, The Aloha State March and Lo ihi: Birth of an Island among many others.