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.

Iggy Jang was the Honolulu Symphony's concertmaster—the leading violinist. He joined the symphony in 1997 from France.

Photo: David Croxford

The deep ringing of the Saint Andrew’s Cathedral bells drift downward into the damp parking lot on a cool winter evening. Inside, the mood is light, as the concertgoers kiss hello before taking their seats in stern wooden pews—some even bring their own seat cushions and lauhala fans—and vie for spots not obscured by the cathedral’s obtrusive white pillars. Most of the 52 pews are peppered with attendees in their 60s; typing on their iPhones, the younger patrons stand out.

No one minds the musicians as they warm up on their trumpets, trombones, horns, clarinets and oboes on the cathedral’s chancel. The conversations soon quiet as the Saint Andrew’s organ player introduces the Chamber Music Hawaii ensembles. The program features 19 musicians from the brass and wind choirs. They perform arrangements by Giovanni Gabrieli, Michael Praetorius and, after an intermission with free cookies and apple cider, “Serenade No. 10,” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The notes fill the cathedral without the help of microphones, commanding the audience’s attention (even if several people grow noticeably more uncomfortable in the pews). The audience rises to its feet in standing ovation as the musicians smile and bow.

The chamber musicians—who also play with the Honolulu Symphony—appreciate the applause, but it’s not the same. They are in an old, Anglican church, not on the stage of the Neal S. Blaisdell Concert Hall, in tuxedos and flowing black gowns, in front of an audience of more than 2,000. It’s Dec. 6, the last CMH concert of 2010, and just seven days before the Honolulu Symphony will convert to Chapter 7 liquidation, lowering the curtain on its 110-year history. It’d been one year since the Honolulu Symphony Society (HSS), which manages and fundraises for the symphony, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. What were the organization’s chances of successfully reemerging, we wondered? We spent the winter talking to board members, the musicians union and symphony donors. The board had in the works what it conceived as a revolutionary maneuver to save the organization, of which you’ve probably never heard. The union, frustrated with the HSS, felt confident new leadership would rise up from within the arts community. Classical music lovers just missed hearing the live, symphonic pieces. Today, all that’s left is the memory of the symphony, with no viable prospects of hearing the 64-piece orchestra play again. Who killed the symphony?

Was it the board?

No one would argue that the symphony performances weren’t chicken-skin experiences; ours was a nationally recognized orchestra, its members received a Grammy nomination and also recorded the soundtrack to Princess Kaiulani. But playing Mozart or Bach wasn’t enough to generate buzz at the box office. Unlike their Europe counterparts, American symphonies don’t receive significant government funding and rely on donors—both individuals and businesses—to put their musicians on stage. In recent years, the HSS faced a mounting debt, compounded by a growing season budget, which hovered between $8 million and $9 million. Anonymous angel donors, whose multimillion-dollar, last-minute donations had brought the symphony back into the black, were being more selective with their gifts because of the recession. Even worse, the society witnessed dwindling ticket sales, which, at best, covered only 30 percent of the budget. In fact, the symphony hadn’t sold out a performance in about 10 years; on average only 400 to 600 paying ticket-holders filled the Blaisdell’s 2,158 seats for each performance.

Jonathon Parrish, French hornist, joined the symphony in 1998.

Photo: David Croxford

“I think the board has the responsibility, ultimately, for the success and failure of the organization … Clearly, the one thing that wasn’t broken with the organization was the product,” says Jonathan Parrish, the general manager of CMH, the union spokesperson and a symphony French horn player.

The most recent board, made up of powerhouse business people, was charged with fundraising in a gloomy economy, not to mention carrying about $4 million in debt. “It’s not like every season we were starting fresh,” says Kimberly Miyazawa Frank, then HSS board chair, who also juggled being a mother to three young children and an account executive at Hastings & Pleadwell. “Every season, not only did we need to raise $8 million, we needed to pay a couple of million back in debt. The board had to make the hard decision to say no more, we cannot afford to do business this way.”

The society looked to the Honolulu Symphony Foundation (HSF) for financial support. The HSF is an independent endowment organization, which oversees several funds. (Even today it has between $8 million and $10 million in its pockets.) The foundation ended up advancing $2.7 million to the society in 2009, but with a few caveats: The society had to present a balanced budget, including a 30-60-90-day business plan, and the board had to find a new executive director to replace Tom Gulick. The money kept the symphony afloat, including paying months of back wages to the musicians.

The 2009-2010 season started on a high note, including guest performances by banjoist Béla Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer. But the excitement was short-lived; three weeks in, the symphony society cancelled the remainder of its shows. (This was after musicians agreed to a 15 percent pay cut for the season.) Then, in December 2009, the board took a vote, and, minus the two musician representatives, agreed to file for bankruptcy. The meeting left many dejected. “When we took that final vote, people cried. Many of the musicians are our friends, our kids’ [music] teachers,” says Frank, whose daughter takes violin lessons from a symphony musician.


Ethan Pernala (left) Violist, joined the symphony in 2007. Joanna Morrison Pernela (right) Cellist, joined the symphony in 2007.

Photos: David Croxford

But friendship didn’t lessen the blow to the musicians. “We wished it would never have happened,” says James Moffitt, the symphony’s associate principal bass clarinetist for almost 30 years, and the president of CMH. “We would have liked to have avoided it.”

Peter Shaindlin, former board member and Frank’s predecessor as chair, thought of the bankruptcy filing as a catch-22; the board didn’t want to file and cancel the season, but it also didn’t want to put the musicians on stage knowing they wouldn’t get paid. “We looked at every option,” says the Halekūlani COO. “If we stayed status quo, we wouldn’t have money to pay the musicians and the staff. We’d collapse.” It’s not like the symphony hadn’t come close to this before. The 1993-1994 season was nixed after the musicians rejected the society’s proposal of wage cuts and layoffs. That next year the core musicians performed as the independent Hawaii Symphony.

Under the bankruptcy court’s protection, the HSS had to file and get approval on a sustainable reorganization plan. During the first half of 2010, it attempted to renegotiate contracts with the union, which meant drastically lowering the annual budget, mainly comprising the musicians’ payroll. The board proposed pay cuts and benefit reductions that, for some musicians, would have meant going from a season salary of roughly $38,000 to about $3,300. “Professional musicians can’t live on that,” says Brien Matson, the union president and a jazz trombonist who performed in the symphony’s pops concerts. “You can’t attract musicians to move to Hawaii with that, nobody would audition.” The union submitted counter offers, but no agreement was reached.

Tim Leong, Violinist, joined the symphony in 1981.

In its defense, the board backed up its budget-slashing propositions with a 200-page organizational analysis (with thousands of pages worth of additional material) spearheaded by Mark Wong, the chair of the Honolulu Symphony Foundation, as well as the chair and co-founder of Commercial Data Systems. From November 2009 to March 2010, the company collected hundreds of documents from national arts and orchestra organizations, Honolulu Symphony donor statistics, city demographics and information from 100 Mainland orchestras, including in-depth analyses of six cities similar to Honolulu. Researchers interviewed symphony executive directors, conductors, managers and employees going back 30 years. In short, CDS put the Honolulu Symphony and the city itself under a metaphorical microscope.

According to the report, the Honolulu Symphony could realistically solicit and operate with a budget between $2.3 million and $3.1 million. Concertgoer statistics also showed that, from 1998 to 2008, the symphony attendance dropped 70 percent, from almost 216,000 to roughly 65,000, not enough to sustain a healthy 29-week season.

“We knew our [original] budget was too big, because we couldn’t raise it,” says Frank. “We had out-spent our market.” In becoming the board chair, Frank admits she wasn’t fully aware of how much trouble the symphony was in. She knew it was bad, but not that bad. To many, attending the symphony is a luxury. The drop in attendance could signal lifestyle—or financial—changes. Some loyal attendees may have even passed away, as the symphony traditionally draws in an older crowd.

"We have an incredible orchestra from an artistic standpoint. But great sound costs a lot of money." Majken Mechling, Former Honolulu Symphony Society Executive Director

Photo: Courtesy of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Was it Majken Mechling?

In September 2009, the board hired Majken Mechling, much to the union’s chagrin. Mechling had almost 12 years of large-nonprofit management experience, as the former executive director of both the American Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. But the musicians union had a problem with her “complete lack of experience in the performing arts,” says Parrish.

“My role was to be the reality check for the organization and that’s not a popular role, under the best of circumstances, but certainly not in the last year,” says Mechling, a tall woman with light blue eyes. She has a deep appreciation of classical music, but acknowledges that she’s an “artistic ignoramus.” Mechling’s first priority was to investigate the financials. “When you have a legacy like we have, 110 years of providing music to the community, you don’t want to believe that it’s possible that it might not be around forever. Traditionally, we had survived, but we spent so much time surviving, we lost sight of the future.”

As Mechling quickly found out, the symphony was in deep kimchee. Whether its members admitted it or not, the union knew it, too. However, to them, Mechling’s hiring was still problematic. Barely three months into her new job, the society cancelled what would become the symphony’s final season and filed for bankruptcy. Some musicians also took issue with Mechling’s $175,000 salary, when they were being asked to take pay cuts.

“You have to know the product,” Parrish says of being a symphony executive director. “It’d be like hiring an athletic director for UH who has never been involved in athletics. How can you run an athletic program if you don’t even know the rules of football or basketball?”
“I appreciate that a lot of musicians want to put the demise of the organization at my feet,” she says. “I would like to think I was that talented, to flush 110 years of an organization that quickly into the mess it’s in, but the reality is, it was that way before I got there; I was just the first person to speak about it publicly.”

Today, the union no longer has to deal with Mechling, nor she them. But the dissolved relationship doesn’t do anyone any good now that there is no symphony  to revive. Sadly, the musicians and Mechling now have one thing in common, they are all out
of jobs.

Was it the union?

Parrish sits at the union’s conference table in a time-warp of an office, with its shag, bright-green carpet and dated wood furniture—the union has been at the Kapiolani office since 1969—where the musician members meet. Parrish has performed with the symphony since 1998. Pushing his fine, brown hair away from his wire-rim glasses, he explains that things really went downhill—at least in recent symphony history—in 2007, when The Lion King came into town, eating up the first half of the symphony’s season. (The concert hall, which opened in 1964, was built to provide a permanent home for the symphony, and for years the HSS ran it.) The society scrambled to provide other venues, such as the smaller Hawaii Theatre or Mamiya Theatre. The changes resulted in additional venue costs, lower revenue and 11 weeks of missed payroll.


Photos: David Croxford

Angel donors and the symphony foundation made up for the missing paychecks, but the board still had to renegotiate a contract with the union. “There were three factors that could have been adjusted to make this orchestra sustainable: season length, salaries and benefits,” says Wong, who is also a union member and was first hired as a pianist with the symphony in 1974. “The union controlled these factors through its collective-bargaining agreement, always arguing that the society needed to raise more money, never conceding that the agreement might be too expensive.” Honolulu Symphony musicians are not unique in having to supplement their incomes by teaching in the off-season; contract kerfuffles are playing out at symphonies across the nation.

Valerie Ossipoff, Soprano with the Honolulu Symphony Chorus

Shaindlin calls it “contract creep,” adding, that the institution was created to enrich the arts community and provide Honolulu with live, symphonic music. “It was not founded for the primary purpose of creating jobs.”

To the board, and some of its donors, the union’s public criticisms of Mechling and the society board further eroded empathy. “Frankly, I am more distressed that the orchestra musicians cannot seem to appreciate the reality of the situation and work with the society to come to some sort of solution than I am about the cancellation of the season and the [bankruptcy] filing,” says Valerie Ossipoff, a long-time symphony donor and a soprano with the Honolulu Symphony Chorus, which performed with the symphony.

To their credit, the musicians continued to go all out with their performances. In December 2009, they performed Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at the Blaisdell; last October they played to a packed house in Saint Andrew’s. The musicians also started Concert Chats, a short set followed by Q&A about the symphony’s situation in supporters’ homes and in churches, as well as ensemble performances in its state-of-the-art recording studio, next to the union’s offices. “They’ve been very informative,” says Claire Shimabukuro, a 58-year-old symphony attendee and the executive director of Hawaii Meals on Wheels. She felt so strongly about supporting the musicians, she challenged her staff and the nonprofit’s board to donate, and all of them did. “Live music is important for the well being of the entire community, it’s not only for the intellectual or the well-heeled.”

Was it the fighting?

The Chapter 11 bankruptcy sharpened the already strained relations between the symphony board and the musicians union. But, says Shaindlin, the squabbling wasn’t new. When he became the chair in 2008, he noticed the friction immediately and spoke with former chairs going back 30 years. Their response was always the same: The board and the union didn’t get along. Many times, the roller-coaster relationship between the board and the union depended on where the organization was financially. 

Mark Wong, Honolulu Symphony Foundation Chair

Photo: Olivier Koning

“Emotions run high … but I feel you have to be able to set [them] aside in order to assess the situation with any clarity,” says Wong. “When the society and the union are both focused on putting our community first, the healing can begin.”

The symphony’s ups and downs were understandably wrought with emotion, if only because of everyone’s passion for the organization. But it’s always been art versus business, says Ossipoff, also a former board member. Our symphony isn’t alone. The Savannah Symphony in Georgia filed for Chapter 7 liquidation in 2003. Today, many of its musicians have left and the city is still without a symphony. In South Carolina, the Charleston Symphony suspended its operations last March and cancelled its 2010 season. As of press time, the musicians of the Detroit Symphony, in a labor dispute with the organization’s management, have been on strike since last October. The Honolulu Symphony has picketed, too. In 1986, the musicians went on a 15-week strike demanding higher pay and a set number of performance weeks.

Anna Womack, Violinist, joined the symphony in 1994.

Photo: David Croxford

The Honolulu Symphony’s troubles meant many groups and individuals didn’t want to talk to us. The HSS Associates, a volunteer group, deferred comment to the society. Even other arts organizations shied away. “You won’t find out anything the paper hasn’t already published. Your February story is really bad timing for the Hawaii Opera Theatre,” says Juliana LaReaux, the public relations for Hawaii Opera Theatre, which contracts with the symphony musicians. Both Mechling and Frank were hard to track down for interviews. Of those who went on record, some became increasingly elusive, especially after the Chapter 7 conversion. When rumors of the conversion emerged, several board members plainly stated that the rumors weren’t true—then had little to say to us when it turned out they were. 




Photos: David Croxford

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.

Kimberly Miyazawa Frank, Former Honolulu Symphony Society Board Chair

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.