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Hope lives for a new orchestra

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With bankruptcy liquidation nearing for the Honolulu Symphony, a group of community and philharmonic leaders is quietly studying ways to resurrect the orchestra. Many orchestras across the country have been silenced at least partly by the recession, but that should not deter the group from trying to find a successful business model.

The symphony filed for bankruptcy reorganization in 2009 and converted it to liquidation last December. A court hearing is scheduled March 16 to finalize approval of the bankruptcy and an auction of the symphony’s $330,000 worth of instruments, including two grand pianos, and related equipment.

The somber opus is widespread. The Louisville Orchestra filed for bankruptcy reorganization a few months ago and Detroit Symphony musicians have been on strike over wages since October, prompting management to suspend the remainder of the performance season through June. Orchestras are struggling in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Albuquerque and elsewhere.

All the blame cannot be put on the recession. Classical musical audiences in America have declined by 29 percent since the 1980s, according to surveys by the National Endowment for the Arts.

But curtains do not need to close permanently, as was proved after the Colorado Springs Symphony went bankrupt in 2003 and was replaced within months with a new name and approach. Last October, season ticket holders were asked to stand and be recognized for the success of the present Colorado Springs Philharmonic. In the past two years, season tickets had grown from 800 to nearly 2,000.

Nathan Newbrough, the Philharmonic’s president and chief executive, told the Colorado Springs Gazette that "you have to walk in the balance between two seemingly competing interests — business and art — and get them working together."

The Philharmonic sold season tickets at bargain rates and invested in talent and programming, paying top prices for classical soloists and popular performers.

In Hawaii, a group informally named the Symphony Exploratory Committee, headed by Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee Oz Stender, has begun to look at a way to bring classical music back to the local stage. The group has asked Steve Monder, retired president of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and acclaimed Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conductor JoAnn Falletta to develop a business model for a Honolulu symphony.

The new orchestra, if there is one, would have to start from scratch; an endowment fund estimated at $8 million to $10 million is administered by the independent Honolulu Symphony Foundation and is not part of the symphony’s liquidation.

Stender said the exploratory group has not contacted the former symphony management because it "wanted to approach this thing with no baggage or bias." That may be wise, given the increased animosity between management and musicians during the Honolulu Symphony’s death spiral.

Let’s hope this group’s independent search for sustained symphony support in this town will result in a successful prelude rather than a dismal encore.

 

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