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Editorial | Island Voices

Honolulu can sustain a successful symphony

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Since the Honolulu Symphony died, many have suggested the way is clear for individuals, companies and other institutions to create a healthy new orchestra. I certainly hope so. If such efforts fail, our community will be poorer — especially the keiki.

Hawaii can still support an orchestra. Classical music remains relevant. What’s needed? A fresh approach.

When the symphony fell silent in 2009, I did some research and studied what could expand the audience and generate new enthusiasm for symphonic music here.

I found the likely solution in the ideas of Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and Boston Philharmonic conductor Benjamin Zander.

Before joining the Kennedy Center, Kaiser had saved the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the American Ballet Theater and London’s Royal Opera House — all in crisis. His book, "The Art of the Turnaround," summarizes what he learned in restoring their financial health. His recipe for success: "Great art, well marketed."

"You cannot save your way to health," he writes. "Revenue is the problem … not costs."

How to generate revenue? In the cities where he turned things around, Kaiser’s "great art" was somewhat edgy, appealing to those seeking something novel and exciting. While such an approach may work in New York, its appeal is limited in smaller, less arts-sophisticated communities like ours.

What might work here? Zander points the way: "Everybody loves classical music — they just haven’t found out about it yet."

Most Americans who think they know nothing about classical music — even those who are intimidated by it or think they dislike it — actually enjoy it. It’s everywhere: in movies, on radio and TV, in ads and popular music.

If you could get newcomers into the concert hall to hear tuneful, infectious pieces like Rossini’s "William Tell Overture" (the "Lone Ranger" theme), they’d love the experience. A live orchestra is infinitely more exciting than recordings.

How to attract the audience? Imaginative marketing. For example, to promote a concert featuring "William Tell," dress someone as the Lone Ranger, mount him on a white horse, and invite TV coverage.

How else to "grow" the audience? Admit schoolkids free. Hundreds of Honolulu Symphony seats were empty. Donors would love to fill them with kids (future ticket buyers). Fill other empty seats with subscribers’ friends and neighbors who’ve never attended a symphony concert; let paid ticket holders invite such first-timers, gratis. Next time, many will buy a ticket. Audience growth, excitement and buzz will rekindle donor enthusiasm, which cooled in the Honolulu Symphony’s final years.

There is much classical music new concertgoers would love. The light classics of the Boston Pops (which sold more recordings than any other orchestra) could be a model for a series of crowd-pleasing concerts. And a revived Honolulu Symphony could still present its "Masterworks" and "Pops" series, consisting of "heavier" and "lighter" classical music, respectively.

A reborn orchestra here could fill the vital role the Honolulu Symphony used to play, reaching out to schools, inspiring love of music and educating new generations of musicians.

There is much we can do to create excitement and ensure that symphonic music thrives in 21st-century Hawaii. With imagination and energy, this community can certainly support an orchestra.


On Vacation

Cynthia Oi is on vacation. Her "Under the Sun" column, which appears on Thursdays, will resume Jan. 27.

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