Extra Strength Crazy In Honolulu

After awhile, the repetition associated with labor disputes can get pretty boring; each side tosses the same old accusations and language back and forth and the outcomes are pretty much unsurprising. It is almost as formulaic as Hollywood’s never ending stream of buddy-cop or teenage-angst flicks. But every now and then, a group emerges to offer up something so crazy it would make the Mad Hatter whistle in awe. And just last week, the current Honolulu Symphony Orchestra (HSO) leadership tossed out an item so irrational, it left poor Mr. Hatter speechless…

According to multiple media reports, the HSO has “accepted the resignation” of all rostered musicians. But here’s the catch: none of the musicians seem to recall resigning. Although the HSO leadership has yet to respond to numerous media requests for additional details, the only explanation they’ve provided is a mass email announcement from society Chairperson Kimberly Miyazawa Frank stating the musicians are “organizing a new resident symphony orchestra staffed by Honolulu Symphony Orchestra musicians…Therefore, the [Honolulu Symphony Society] has accepted the resignation of these musicians as of July 13, 2010.”

Since then, HSO musicians have provided numerous statements and even participated in a three minute live news segment to make it clear that they didn’t resign and they are not planning to form their own ensemble. Frankly, stunned blinking would have been an acceptable response but the interviewer did a great job at using the time to bring the broad labor dispute into focus for viewers unaware of the situation’s history.

If it wasn’t for the fact that this was reported throughout several established outlets, I would have sworn I was reading a copy of The Onion. The only thing I can think of that led HSO leaders to this course of action is this little gem of an idea is so ill-conceived, it just might work. After all, sometimes extra-strength crazy can serve as a useful red herring.

Nonetheless, I have yet to encounter a collective bargaining agreement that prohibits member musicians from holding a contracted position in multiple ensembles. In fact, it’s a fairly common occurrence in per service orchestras and most salaried musicians perform as rostered players in chamber groups.

So unless this is a part of some larger gambit (of which, I can’t begin to conceive), the current HSO leadership can only expect to reinforce the increasingly obvious notion that they are in over their heads. Moreover, they may project exactly that image to bankruptcy court Judge Robert Faris during the next bankruptcy hearing in mid October.

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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6 thoughts on “Extra Strength Crazy In Honolulu”

  1. Interesting and sad.

    The HSO leadership in its plan to move forward through bankruptcy seeks to reduce the orchestra’s budget by almost 80%.

    Obviously this must have a huge impact on musician pay. Even retaining all 63 members at a higher base rate the reduction in their income from this organization approaches 90% (roughly $31,000 to $3,200). Not good news, certainly, and certainly not enough income for a musician to sustain life in expensive Hawaii.

    So this is the “best and final” offer rejected by the union that resulted in the impasse announced by the HSO. Whatever views on has about the competency of this organization, they heard “no” from the group representing its players and accepted the answer.

    All this is not happening in a vacuum. The HSO leadership is on the path to have a budget closer to Richardson, TX. However the performing options in the Dallas/Ft.Worth area far exceed what is available on Hawaii. This may be the reason the local-AFM thinks it can get away with threatening a $50,000 fine for RSO musicians that leave the union to continue to play in the RSO (most players receive barely $3,000 yearly from that orchestra according to the Dallas Morning News.

    One suspects AFM local in Hawaii does not have the same clout for such threats in the local performing environment when dealing with an orchestra seeking bankruptcy protection.

    The faint silver lining in Hawaii is that both sides express willingness to continue negotiations. My question would what is left to negotiate?

    Starting over with two new orchestras, new leadership, and a clean financial slate is maybe not the worst idea for musicians in both localities to contemplate.

    • “My question would what is left to negotiate?”

      That’s precisely the question to ask and ultimately, that should be answered by the bankruptcy judge. In essence, having the players start up an organization the size currently proposed by the HSO isn’t a stretch for the imagination. It certainly won’t be a cake walk but it’s been done before and could likely be reproduced in Honolulu.

  2. This latest only confirms the growing number of symphony boards who seem to find maintaining a symphony orchestra an inconvenient irritant to their primary mission of social climbing and business contacts. This reminds me of a deceased conductor who went to the management of a major southeast orchestra years ago and wanted to fire the entire orchestra, and instead they fired him. Wishful thinking.

  3. We can say this over and over again: nothing can replace a Board that is fully knowledgeable and completely dedicated to the Mission of the Organization.

    In addition we can add: We must reject the idea.. well-intentioned, but dead wrong.. that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become more like a business. Most businesses.. like most of anything else in life.. fall somewhere between mediocre and good
    Jim Collins – Good to Great.

    I worked in Honolulu for almost 5 years. I can tell you for sure it was a constant struggle to populate that board with the right people. Clearly we failed and the result is now painfully obvious.

    But it should be noted a few outside consultants who thought they knew it all also made the situation worse along the way.

    So very, very sad.

    Michael Tiknis

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