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Dissonance dominates effort to save symphony

Michael Tsai
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Longtime supporters say they’re losing hope that the 110-year-old Honolulu Symphony will emerge from bankruptcy and resume live symphonic performances any time soon.

The troubled relationship between symphony management and musicians continues to deteriorate amid mutual accusations of unreasonable demands and bad-faith bargaining.

"Frankly, I don’t see much room for optimism," said Paul Schwind, a symphony subscriber for more than 35 years.

Schwind is one of a small number of subscribers who have filed claims with U.S. Bankruptcy Court to recover a portion of what they paid for season tickets to the symphony’s aborted 2009-10 season. He said he filed the claim primarily so that he would have a voice in the bankruptcy proceedings. In recent months, however, Schwind has distanced himself from the process, dismayed by what he sees as a lack of meaningful progress between the symphony society (which manages symphony operations) and the musicians union, which have staked seemingly polar positions.

"It’s a sad thing for everyone involved," Schwind said. "Clearly, they’re very far apart in the negotiations. This is not a good thing for keeping symphonic music alive in Hawaii."

The financially struggling symphony canceled half of its 2009-10 season and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December. Symphony leadership has vowed not to resume regular performances until a new "financially responsible and sustainable" business model is implemented.

Prior to the bankruptcy filing, the symphony covered roughly 30 percent of its overhead through subscriptions and ticket sales and relied on individual and corporate donations to cover the rest. While angel donors provided last-minute bailouts to cover the annual deficits in recent years, the symphony ended last year roughly $4 million in debt. At one point last season, symphony musicians continued to perform despite being owed some three months of back wages.

Susan Spangler, past president of the Honolulu Symphony Associates and a former symphony society board member, was succinct in her reading of the situation.

"We need a plan, and we need somebody to expedite that plan," she said.

Based on an extensive organizational analysis released in April, the symphony society has proposed a radical reduction in concerts and other public performances as well as other cost-cutting measures that would reduce the symphony’s annual budget to $1.7 million from about $8 million in the first year of reorganization.

The plan was approved by the symphony society’s board of directors Thursday.

The Musicians’ Association of Hawaii, Local 677 of the American Federation of Musicians, argued the plan would effectively reduce musicians’ annual income by 92 percent, from $30,885 in the last complete season before the bankruptcy filing to $3,256 in the first year of reorganization.

The two sides met twice in the past month but were unable to agree on terms of a new collective-bargaining agreement. The union rejected the society’s "best and final offer" on July 9, leading the symphony society to declare an impasse in negotiations two days later. The union subsequently filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming the symphony society had not bargained in good faith.

Then, last Thursday, the symphony society announced that it had accepted what it termed the musicians "resignation," claiming the musicians had "announced that it is organizing a new resident symphony orchestra staffed by musicians employed by the HSS."

Symphony Executive Director Majken Mechling said the move was based on previous statements by symphony musicians.

The musicians insist they did not resign and are not organizing a separate orchestra.

"We have repeatedly stated that the musicians’ vision for our symphony was different from that of the society’s vision; however, we can confirm the union or musicians have not initiated the formation of a new orchestra," the musicians said in an e-mail statement. "We are not certain how the Honolulu Symphony Society came to that erroneous conclusion, which, unfortunately, was the basis for their decision to ‘accept the resignations of the musicians.’"

The public disagreement has been complicated by a swirl of rumors alleging philosophical divisions within the symphony board and supposed attempts by musicians to solicit donors for an independent orchestra.

"I hate to take sides without knowing the facts, but what is most disturbing to me as a subscriber is how diametrically opposed they are over whether the musicians even resigned," Schwind said.

Bruce Erickson and his wife, Jackie Mahi Erickson, have been symphony subscribers for almost 20 years and have contributed large sums to keep the symphony afloat. But Erickson said he would need evidence of "a functional plan" before donating again.

Erickson said that cutting expenses is necessary — "Without cutting costs, there will be no symphony" — but he urged the symphony society to be more forthcoming and more flexible in its dealings with the musicians.

"They aren’t extending themselves to resolve the situation," he said. "This recent thing with the resignations is ridiculous."

Erickson gauged the chances of the symphony returning to the pit in time for a 2010-11 season as "pretty poor."

Lori Arizumi, a longtime supporter and former president of the Honolulu Symphony Association, organized a public meeting last week, attended by 100 community members and 20 musicians, to share information and discuss a unifying vision for what a Hawaii symphony should be. She said the comments offered during the meeting were largely positive, and she holds out hope that some sort of resolution can be reached.

"What is happening has been happening, rise and fall, for 20 years. It’s never been this dramatic, but there definitely will be another orchestra here.

"I just think it’s unfortunate that the community has been exposed to some of these actions because they make everybody look bad, and they make people take sides when they don’t want to take sides."


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