At about this time of year, the musicians of the Honolulu Symphony would normally be hard at work.
String players like bassist Mike Gorman and violinists Fumiko Wellington and Judy Barrett would be listening to recordings of the season’s repertoire, studying the bowings and phrasings designated by their section leaders. Barrett’s husband, Paul, would be making reeds for his bassoon — hundreds of them — carving, bending and curing the raw reed material into the right shape.
And they would all be practicing, practicing, practicing.
"Use it or lose it," said Gorman. "You have to keep your skills up. At this level you can’t allow yourself to lose your edge.
"Symphony musicians are not there because of their talent; they’re there because of a lifelong commitment," he said. "I and all of my colleagues have spent years and invested a lot of bucks getting our craft to this level where we can come in and present a concert in a few rehearsals. It’s that devotion to craft that makes it possible to bring this music alive."
But instead of practicing and rehearsing, Gorman has moved to Houston to work as personnel manager for one of the two symphony orchestras there, putting his recently renovated home in Kailua up for sale. The Barretts, meanwhile, are living mostly on unemployment benefits, as is Wellington. They are in limbo, wondering whether the symphony will emerge from bankruptcy. But they too are open to leaving.
The circumstances have become dire for the once highly regarded Honolulu Symphony, musicians say. The 109-year-old symphony filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in December and canceled the remainder of its 2009-10 season after years of financial shortfalls. The Symphony Society, the organization that runs the business operations of the orchestra, has proposed a radical reduction in performances and services, with pay cuts the musicians say would make it impossible to live and work here as professional performers.
FOR CLASSICAL MUSIC LOVERS
CHAMBER MUSIC HAWAII
HONOLULU CHAMBER MUSIC SOCIETY
PIANIST ANTON KUERTI
UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII "MUSIC AT MANOA"
LUTHERAN CHURCH OF HONOLULU ABENDMUSIKEN CONCERTS
The society’s proposal goes before a bankruptcy judge Oct. 15. A musicians group has been looking into developing its own plan.
If the symphony is shut down for good, and more musicians leave, the effect would be far-reaching. Symphony musicians provided quality accompaniment for groups such as Hawaii Opera Theatre and Ballet Hawaii. Churches and community groups relied on symphony musicians for their own performances. Gorman supplemented his symphony salary by running a business as a contractor linking up these groups with musicians.
Many of the musicians taught privately or at schools, working with school music teachers to improve their programs and sending many of their own students to top mainland music programs. In music, perhaps more so than most professions, this knowledge directly passed from teacher to student and generations beyond is fundamental to the art.
"I can trace my musical lineage back 200 years," Gorman said.
For now the musicians are left with bittersweet memories of careers that offered them not only personal and professional satisfaction, but moments of surprise and excitement.
GORMAN REMEMBERS when cellist Yo-Yo Ma came to perform Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, which was scheduled for the second half of the concert. "We go out to play the first half, and the stage manager had set up an extra stand and chair in the back of the section for Yo-Yo Ma," she said. "And so Yo-Yo Ma played the first half from the back of the cello section.
"It was so fun to watch the shock of recognition, looking out at the audience. Someone’s eyes would get wide and they’d point him out."
Wellington’s orchestra memories go back to childhood, when, as the daughter of longtime principal bassist George Wellington, she would attend every rehearsal and every concert. She studied and performed on the mainland and all over Europe but was drawn home to her roots.
"My parents moved here because of the orchestra," she said. "My father was black and my mother was Japanese. In some states it wasn’t even legal for them to be married. His teacher at Northwestern found him this job. He had to teach, too, to make enough money, so he started teaching at Kalakaua (Intermediate)."
Wellington said she had been expecting her own daughter, Kiyoe, who studied bass with Gorman and is entering the New England Conservatory of Music this year, to become the third generation of the family to play in the Honolulu Symphony.
Wellington has been doing what she can to keep classical music alive in Honolulu. She organized some music and art performances at Fresh Cafe in Kakaako, even acquiring a piano for the venue, courtesy of a fellow orchestra member. But her money ran out, so she too is considering going to the mainland to be closer to her daughter.
If more players leave, it will take a long time to rebuild the orchestra into something close to what it once was, she said.
"There was a lot of energy put into improving our sound — consciously, as a group, playing together, moving together, standing together — so that it would improve the ensemble. … People expect that now."
Some of that ensemble has already been shattered. The oboe section was recently gutted, with principal Scott Janusch — considered one of the top oboists in the country — leaving for a position in Kansas City, Mo. The two other positions were already vacant.
The Barretts are also considering leaving, but to an extent they are "stuck" here. Paul Barrett, the bassoonist, has auditioned at four mainland symphonies to no avail. "It’s very competitive and I’m 55 now," he said. "Auditions favor the young, just because of the stamina involved."
The Barretts have sold many personal belongings, including Paul Barrett’s second bassoon, exhausted their savings and received help from friends and family to make ends meet. "It’s come to the point where you can’t ask anymore," Judy Barrett said. "You just do what you can do."