At last week’s Midwest Clinic, a colleague asked about the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra’s (HSO) impending bankruptcy. She was curious why the board decided to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy (known as reorganization or rehabilitation bankruptcy) as opposed to Chapter 7 (also called liquidation bankruptcy). At the core of the conversation was the HSO’s plan to reorganize as a per service or dual core/per service artistic structure…

The HSO board and executive leadership have been purporting the reorganization’s plan to reduce the number of salaried musicians from the mid 60s down to somewhere in the low to mid 20s as a model they claim will meet the area’s demand. However, throughout the organization’s history of financial trouble, the musicians have remained steadfast against the idea, claiming that it will be too difficult to attract quality musicians and eventually hurt the community. They also assert increased production costs associated with a per service structure will mitigate any potential savings.

What will be fascinating to watch is how all of this will shake itself out when the HSO presents their reorganization plan to a court appointed trustee. Ideally, the HSO and its musicians will work out these details to mutually satisfying terms before they present a plan to the trustee and this is where musician stakeholders will have an opportunity to assert the most influence on the organization’s fate.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the variables in a situation like this are numerous and interact in dynamic fashion so prognosticating is, at best, an academic exercise. Nonetheless, the artistic complement to any proposed business model will be a critical component to the reorganization plan. If the HSO and musician stakeholders do not come to an agreement or if a trustee is not satisfied with the business details associated with the proposed artistic structure, the HSO could find itself moving from reorganization to liquidation.

Although Chapter 7 has an undeniable stigma attached to it, there have been instances in the business where that option has produced favorable results. In Colorado Springs, the former Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra and its stakeholder musicians did not see eye to eye on the organization’s future. As a result, the musicians didn’t oppose the board’s petition to file Chapter 7 and working with local philanthropic leaders, formed a new board and orchestral association, the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, the very next season. Ultimately, time will tell if path is one that might provide a better solution to Hawaii’s future of live, orchestral classical music.

Speaking of the Midwest Clinic, here’s a photo from the American Composers Forum booth. Just to get a good idea of just how small this business can seem, the gentleman on the left is composer Stephen Paulus. At the Grand Teton Music Festival this past summer, I had the pleasure of hearing the premier of Stephen’s cello concerto which was performed by cellist and Inside The Arts blogger Lynn Harrell. The lovely woman in the middle is composer Alex Shapiro. Regular readers will recognize Alex’s name from several articles here, including her mind expanding contribution to the 2006 Take A Friend To The Orchestra program.

L to R: composer Stephen Paulus, composer Alex Shapiro, and me.

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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