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Vicky Cayetano

Hawaii's former first lady is on track to revive a symphony in Honolulu

By Vicki Viotti

LAST UPDATED: 6:26 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

In Vicky Cayetano's full life — even before United Laundry Services, which she still heads, even before her years as Hawaii's first lady — there's always been music. At her childhood home in San Francisco, she played the flute, sang in choir, among parents and siblings who also are musical.

"I thought every family had music before dinner. I didn't realize what a treat it is," said Cayetano, 55. "I remember my father would always tell me, ‘Just as you need food for the body, you need music for the soul.' And I always remembered that, that music is part of you.

"I don't know how to say it," she added, "except that no matter what kind of music you love, when you hear it, it does something for you."

Cayetano's latest passion has been, as one of the core members of the Symphony Exploratory Committee, resuscitating an orchestra to replace the Honolulu Symphony. It's a project that has had some early success — purchasing the assets of the former symphony, reaching a three-year agreement with the musicians' organization, attracting some influential people from business to help, such as Oz Stender and Mark Polivka, among many others. Steven Monder, the retired president of the Cincinnati Symphony, has signed on as a player, too.

Some discussions, too preliminary to detail, have involved potential corporate partners such as Sony, Disney and Marriott. But the committee has settled on an official name, which she proudly unveiled: the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra.

The day of this interview happened to be a momentous one, the 14th anniversary of her marriage with former Gov. Ben Cayetano, currently engaged in his own weighty issues, principally the debate over Oahu's rail system. But the two also share another preoccupation: their 10 dogs, for whom standard dog food is not good enough. She cooks their diet of oatmeal, turkey and vegetables, with scrambled eggs and salmon on Sundays. Spoil them much?

"I do it for me," she admitted. "It doesn't matter to them, and I realize that. But it's good to feed them good food."

Question: About marketing the symphony, is there a guiding principle about how to proceed in this market?

Answer: I think that for a population such as ours, there are so many competing demands of time, whether it’s with ohana, hula, school activities. So really, you have got to get people excited about wanting to come here, what makes this experience that special. That’s one thing we’re looking at. But the other aspect is I think that we need to do a good job of reaching out in our community to other organizations, such as understanding our relevance to opera, to ballet, in our school system, and that’s where we’re going to do a much broader effort to do that. We have someone who, at this point, would rather remain anonymous, but she wants to fund her legacy for music in the schools, and to schoolchildren, on a long-term basis. So we cannot just look at ourselves as doing concerts; we need to be broader than that in our mission.

We also want to see how we can be relevant to tourism. There’s always this talk about what can people come to Hawaii expecting, what else can we do besides sun and sand? So we have to be creative, but we really strongly believe that we can be relevant to the community. We also want to reach out to more of all the different ethnic groups. Asians traditionally — Koreans, Japanese, Chinese — have a real love of classical music in particular.

Q: Was this idea of reaching out to the tourism market floated previously, before the symphony started breaking down?

A: When I joined, it wasn’t unraveling yet; that was like in ’04, ’05. You know, ideas are easy to come up with. Implementation, executing, is always the challenge. We were never short of ideas. Were those ideas around? Yes. Was there ever a really serious effort to do all those things, so that we could make it a reality? I don’t think so. Obviously, this is why the demise occurred.

Q: How would you characterize what went wrong?

A: I think it was a combination of things. There’s no question that a challenging economy makes things even more difficult. I think that your core supporters are the employees — in this case, the musicians. And there has to be a trustful and mutually respectful relationship and I think, frankly, that was missing. I don’t think it’s any secret, it all played out through the media. And, just like in our business, we have to have a really good relationship with our employees in order to produce a good product. If you don’t have that element, you can’t succeed, even if all the other pieces are there. And I think that was missing, and I think that was very, very difficult. ... But I do believe that even in a tough economy, you can succeed. You just have to be that much better, that much more creative.

Q: What is the time frame for the reorganization of the symphony?

A: We have announced that we came to an agreement with the musicians. So we are working to unveil a season, starting in late fall.

Q: What steps have been taken? Do you have contracts?

A: We have an agreement with the musicians already. We are now nailing down the venues. Steve Monder’s coming back. We have an interim conductor in JoAnn Falletta. So we’re getting all the pieces in place.

Q: How was Steven Monder persuaded to come?

A: The musicians had reached out to him prior, and so he’s had communication with them, really a great deal of empathy. Also, he was very impressed with their persistence, in terms of wanting somehow to keep this alive, some way. And so when we contacted him, and he came out and met with us (in January), he, one, was convinced that there’s a real credible effort here, because he’s not going to waste his time, either. And, two, there is, as he says, “You are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean; how can you not have a symphony? This is important to the community.” He sees that, and it’s our job now to get that message to the community.

Q: How are the plans going for finding the venues for the first season?

A: If we can’t hold it in one location and have to split, we will do all the pops in one, and the classical pieces in the same venue, so that people don’t get confused. But we also want to reach out to the community and do things with them … I’m talking to the folks at Sony, to see if we can do something in conjunction with the Sony Open. I mean, when you think of Sony, what do you think of? … That’s what’s going to make our effort a little different. We’re not just talking about, “OK, we’re opening again.” And tickets, it’s got to be different. We’re revisiting everything, from the way you buy tickets, to the way you get there and park, to the experience itself.

Q: What do you say to people who say symphonic music no longer has the support base?

A: I hear that, too. But I generally find that people understand. How long have we had classical music, for how many hundreds of years? It’s not going to go away, it’s kind of like the foundation to all music. And I think part of what the former organization perhaps didn’t do as well was in making it relevant. And that’s key. … We’re reaching out to the Hawaii Youth Symphony and working with (director) Selena Ching. What we’d love to do is engage some of their musicians, too, and have them play with the symphony, or have them do a piece at the beginning. Because you know how many parents get so excited. I mean, their concerts are always full. There’s a great example of how they’ve done well. People feel tied to it. You’ve got to make a connection. And at the end of the day, that’s what we’re trying to do, is make that connection, so that people are excited about going to a concert.

Q: Would you say that all the budget cuts in schools have eroded student exposure to music?

A: Exactly. So, wouldn’t it be great if we could provide that? … In a way, it’s these tough times that create opportunities for us. Because everybody’s looking to do something. … That’s what our group is trying to do, is creatively to implement, not just come up with ideas, with ways we can implement them, to make our symphony relevant to our community.

Q: So there will be a mix of musical genres played?

A: You know, that’s what the musicians told us. They said, “We’re willing to play anything … We’ve gotten somehow stuck with this image that we’re real high makamaka and want to play only classical pieces, and that’s not true. We want to play a repertoire that represents the diversity of our state.”

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