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Symphony group sees ‘endless opportunities’

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The high-powered group seeking to return the bankrupt Honolulu Symphony to the stage has yet to broker an agreement with musicians, secure a commitment from the private foundation that still administers the symphony’s $10 million endowment or rescue the symphony’s physical assets and intellectual properties from the auction block.

So why are group members so optimistic that they will be able to reverse the fortunes of an arts organization whose perpetual financial struggles exhausted the good will of its benefactors and prompted its last board of directors to pull the plug on 110 years of history?

"We’ve been overwhelmed by e-mails and phone calls from people who are excited by what we’re doing and are eager to help," said Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee Oswald Stender, who is heading the group known as the Symphony Exploratory Committee. "There is a lot of interest and support in the community from people who believe that Hawaii, like any great city, should have a first-class symphony."

The group also includes:

» Former Hawaii first lady Vicky Cayetano, a former symphony board member and one-time symphony chief executive officer.
» Paul Kosasa, president of ABC Stores.
» Mark Polivka, president of Monarch Insurance.
» Attorney Ken Robbins.
» Mona Abadir, chief executive officer of Honu Group.
» Mitch D’Olier, president of Kaneohe Ranch Co.
» Gabe Lee, executive vice president of American Savings Bank.
» Barron Guss, president of Altres Corp.

The group had been quietly meeting for months before Gov. Neil Abercrombie mentioned it in public for the first time last month.

Last week the group submitted an all-inclusive bid to purchase the symphony’s assets, which includes the symphony’s voluminous music library. Bankruptcy trustee Richard Yanagi confirmed to the Star-Advertiser that he had received the committee’s bid of $210,000 plus $21,000 buyer’s premium to the auction company.

While Stender is concerned that the group’s bid will be used as a starting point for the auction tentatively scheduled for Thursday, he remains hopeful that the group’s strategy on bidding for the assets as a lot will prove successful. A bankruptcy judge will hold a hearing Wednesday on whether the auction will go forward.

Stender said the group has also had conversations with Mark Wong, head of the Honolulu Symphony Society, which administers the symphony’s endowment.

"The foundation is very important and we can build on it. Everybody will win," Stender said. "But (Wong) has several issues he has to sort out."

Among those issues is House Bill 1378, which would allow income and capital gains from the state’s contribution to the endowment to be used for non-symphony-related cultivation of "music production, performances and music education" under the administration of the Department of Accounting and General Services. The bill cites the dissolution of the symphony as one of the principal reasons for the shift.

Stender said he would like legislators to hold off on the measure for a year to give his group time to show that its plans for resurrecting the symphony are viable. The bill did not make a procedural deadline last week, so it might not advance this session.

The exploratory committee has yet to formally meet with the Hawaii Musicians Union Local 677 of the American Federation of Musicians, which represents symphony musicians.

The musicians, who during the symphony’s aborted 2010 season continued to play despite being owed months of back pay, have previously stated they believe that improved management, marketing and outreach efforts — much like those currently being discussed by the exploratory committee — would make it possible for the symphony to continue.

Symphony Society officials cited the inability to come to terms with the musicians on a new collective bargaining agreement as one of the reasons for its decision to dissolve the organization. The musicians had balked at the society’s plan to reduce the musicians’ overall pay more than 90 percent by radically cutting the number of symphony performances each year.

"You can’t compare wages here with L.A. or San Francisco because musicians there can be mobile; they can travel to other states to play for two or three other orchestras," Stender said. "Our musicians can’t do that. They have to be able to earn a living wage from one orchestra. So you either want to have a solid orchestra or you don’t. If you want to have great musicians, you have to pay."

Where exactly that money might come from has been the topic of high-energy, high-creativity discussions among committee members.

At a committee meeting Feb. 28, members proffered dozens of ideas for broadening the symphony’s audience and donor base — ideas made feasible by the committee members’ various connections and involvements.

For example, Robbins’ proposal to stage symphony performances at the new Disney hotel in Ko Olina dovetailed nicely with Abadir’s current work in helping to re-brand Ko Olina as an arts and culture destination.

Other recommendations included having the symphony perform at the Waikiki Shell to encourage a broader cross section of the population to attend, or join with other arts organizations to visit neighbor island venues like the Maui Arts & Culture Center as a means of expanding the audience base statewide.

"We need to make the symphony relevant to a much broader audience and not be so Honolulu-centric," Abadir said. "There are many organizations we can work with to make this happen. It’s all about partnerships."

Committee members discussed organizing a speakers bureau to visit community organizations, mobilizing the symphony’s once-formidable corps of volunteers to assist in fundraising efforts, working with neighbor island mayors to develop initiatives appropriate for each island community, and initiating or renewing partnerships with other arts and culture organizations.

"There are endless opportunities," Polivka said. "People want to know you. They want to see the pathway to help."

Former Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra President Steve Monder, who along with Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conductor JoAnn Falleta has been tapped to develop a business model for the symphony, emphasized community interaction and education as essential components of any plan to return the symphony to operation. And while those concepts were discussed extensively by previous symphony administrations, committee members are hopeful that they will be able to identify ways to realize what has already been accepted in theory.

"I see people that are deeply committed to making this happen," Monder said. "Now we have to find a way to make this successful in this environment, to make the symphony relevant to this community."

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Star-Advertiser staff writer Steven Mark contributed to this report.

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