Delfs In Honolulu

Yesterday’s article announcing that conductor Andreas Delfs will be assuming the position of principal conductor at the Honolulu Symphony serves as another example for a growing trend…


Delfs’ new position marks the second instance in recent history where an ICSOM ensemble’s primary conductor has assumed an artistic leadership position in a U.S. ensemble with a smaller budget than their most recent position. The other conductor being Neeme Jarvi who went from the Detroit Symphony to the NJSO. It will be curious to see if this is going to become a trend among conductors operating in the U.S.

Generally, ICSOM level conductors only accept positions in ensembles with larger budgets, longer seasons, etc. Additionally, conductors may assume positions in multiple ICSOM ensembles of similar budget size but the trend is to move upward as much as possible.

Beyond the obvious reasons, higher status, better pay, greater artistic satisfaction, etc., why has it been unusual to see conductors move in the other direction? Unsurprisingly, ego likely plays a great part; nevertheless, there is something to be said for having the right person in the right place at the right time.

What needs to happen for this emerging trend to take hold is success: one conductor will need to achieve some sincerely fantastic accomplishments while maintaining their artistic status. For example, if Delf’s efforts in Honolulu can bring about the following conditions while simultaneously maintaining a guest conducting career equal to or greater than he currently maintains, he may very well change the nature in how conductors seek primary positions:

  • Delfs will need to be the undeniable catalyst for sincere artistic accomplishment while maintaining high musician morale.
  • Delfs will need to be a key figure in rallying board members and executive management to move the organization toward hereto unknown levels of financial resources capable of paying the musicians and staff what they deserve (and need in such a costly area to live) .

  • >From an artistic standpoint, Delfs’ presence in Honolulu is likely to be a good thing. Like many ICSOM level ensembles these days, the Honolulu Symphony plays at a level which exceeds their pay scale (not unlike the ensemble Delfs is leaving). I’ve never attended a bad concert or listened to a sub par radio broadcast with Delfs on the podium. Furthermore, the majority of personal conversations with musicians who have played under Delfs have always been good; not gushing but not vitriolic either (although smattered with the normal handful of opinions at either extreme). If I had to use one word to describe Delfs artistically based on the input I have received from these players, it would likely be “solid”.

    Regarding Delfs ability to help inspire a successful wave of capital fundraising; only time will tell. In his two most recent U.S. posts, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Milwaukee Symphony, both ensembles experienced sincere financial problems during his tenure. That certainly doesn’t mean Delfs is responsible, that would be ridiculous to presume, but it does indicate that an organization will have to rely on more than a sense of presence to inspire improvements to their financial position.

    As for now, there is nothing but opportunity for all of the Honolulu Symphony’s stakeholders. It will be interesting to see what they make of it.

    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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    3 thoughts on “Delfs In Honolulu

    1. “In his two most recent U.S. posts, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Milwaukee Symphony, both ensembles experienced severe financial problems during his tenure. That certainly doesn’t mean Delfs is responsible, that would be ridiculous to presume, but it does indicate that an organization will have to rely on more than a sense of presence to inspire improvements to their financial position.”

      Delf’s tenure in Milwaukee is a good example of what a music director can and can’t do about the orchestra’s finances. When he was first here, there was a definite uptick in ticket sales. After a while, that tailed off, as one would expect, absent any other changes. We recently got a new marketing director, whose efforts have caused sales to increase again. Same music director, similar programming – increased sales.

      Delfs has been very helpful with fundraising and PR. But all a music director can be in these areas is “helpful.” The real work has to be done by the board and the staff. Our board and staff have been doing better of late, hence our improved financial picture.

    2. It’s an interesting development, but it’s also a useful reminder that budget and reputation aren’t everything. It has become quite clear in recent years that any orchestra that pays something resembling a living wage is good, maybe even great. I’ve never heard the Honolulu Symphony, but there’s no reason to believe they’re not an excellent orchestra (or could be with the right leadership, ambition and support).

      And for a serious musician who wants to make good music, that should be enough. Plus, the climate in Hawaii is much nicer than in Milwaukee.

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