The Honolulu Symphony – An Island Unto Itself

It’s not uncommon to hear managers and musicians alike espouse how their orchestra is “unique” among the landscape of American orchestras.  They use this to justify why an idea that is successful at Orchestra “A” wouldn’t be transferable to their situation.

And to small degrees this is usually true, but the larger picture shows us that they are probably more alike than not.  One orchestra which can legitimately claim that it operates in a unique environment, literally and island unto itself, is the Honolulu Symphony.

The Honolulu Symphony has a long history filled with one series of problems followed by another.  These problems have led to the orchestra remaining on the bottom end of the ICSOM pay scale, which has twice of a detrimental effect given the exuberant cost of living on the island.

The most recent blow to the organization came at the end of 2003 when the musicians were forced to reopen contract negotiations and accept a 20% across the board cut in pay or face bankruptcy.  This lowered the base musician salary to a mere $24,120. 

And added to that stress the orchestra’s music director announced that he was stepping down at the end of the 03-04 concert season.

Typically, when a music director leaves an orchestra will book a series of guest conductors who are also candidates for the music director position.  But in Honolulu’s case, their executive director and executive board members decided they would hire an “Artistic Advisor” to fill many of the artistic duties while they search for a new music director.

I spoke with Honolulu’s executive director, Steve Bloom, about that decision and the general status of the orchestra. 

Music Director Search

Regarding the music director search, Steve said;

“We’re in the initial stages of putting together a list of search criteria.  As of now, the search committee is being chaired by our board chair, Mrs. Carolyn Berry.  Other members of the committee will include me, and additional representatives from the executive board, community, musicians, and administration.  In all, there will be 15 members on the search committee. We hope to have a profile and job description completed by the end of the summer.”

One snag in that plan is that many of the musicians are gone for the summer, finding supplemental work to help make ends meat.  This will undoubtedly put some of these plans on hold until all of the musicians are present in order to elect representatives to the search committee. 

One interesting caveat is that Steve said the musicians will have a group “veto” over any candidate regardless of the search committee’s final vote.  Although there are two musicians on the search committee, this is an interesting stop-gap that would prevent those individuals from being coerced by the other committee members or to have them vote against the wishes of the collective musicians.

I asked Steve if Honolulu would consider adopting an artistic model similar to what the Orchestra of St. Luke’s utilizes or even the newer model at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. In those orchestras the musicians have greater artistic authority and the role of music director is reduced to being a principal conductor.  Steve said,

“Maybe, we’ll consider nearly anything.  But personally, I’m not for the idea.”

Honolulu’s New Artistic Advisor

I went on to ask Steve about the decision to appoint JoAnn Falletta as their Artistic Advisor while they search for a new music director.  From a non artistic point of view, Ms. Falletta seems to be an odd choice.  She already serves as the full time music director in two orchestras, the buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony, both of which are located in the eastern portion of the U.S.

Her duties will include participating in musician auditions and selecting repertoire for the orchestra to perform.  Although Steve said that JoAnn will be paid for her position he would not divulge how much that compensation totaled.  I contacted JoAnn’s manager to ask how much she was being compensated and they did not return my inquiries.

Given the fact that JoAnn already earns over 1,500% more than the Honolulu base musician (and that’s only from just her music director positions) it would be good to see her donate her services to the orchestra, thereby helping them get back on firm financial footing.

Such a benevolent act would also serve as a catalyst for gathering new interest and financial support from the community.

Additionally, it would be an appropriate gesture since the musicians did not get to have a voice in the entire decision making process regarding who would serve in the temporary post of Artistic Advisor.

Financial Condition

Finally, I asked Steve about the financial condition of the orchestra.  Steve mentioned that the orchestra is considering hiring a high profile consultant to advise them on how to reverse their financial situation sooner than later, but when asked about who the individual was, Steve only mentioned that it was a “he”.

Steve went on to say that the orchestra plans to increase their endowment from its current level of $5.5 million up to $10 million by the end of the 05-06 season.

Since unearned contributed income is down considerably, Steve said that the past season’s earned revenue increased to 44% of their overall income.  Of that figure, 29% was from ticket sales and program advertising.  Details regarding the percentage of the house sold were: Classical Series concerts sold 66% on average over 28 concert nights, and their Pops concerts sold 82% on average over 15 concert nights.

Additional Thoughts

During my conversation with Steve it struck me that the Honolulu symphony is taking much of the same action to reverse their financial situation as most orchestras are.  But here’s where they should be reversing their natural disadvantage to their advantage.  They should do things differently and fly against conventional wisdom.

Just like the flora and fauna on the island, they need to adapt to their unique environment and begin to resemble their mainland cousins less and less as time moves on.  After awhile, they’ll evolve into a singular organization that best serves the needs of their community, the art form, and those who create that art.

They’ll be happy, satisfied, supported, and reach a level of equilibrium with their environment.

The musicians of the Honolulu symphony have a fascinating web site dedicated to musician and orchestra issues.  It’s an invaluable resource for the local community to learn more about their neighbors that comprise the orchestra.  I wish every orchestra has something similar.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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