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Honolulu Symphony Runs Out of Money to Pay Musicians

By Matthew Westphal
20 Dec 2007


The staff and musicians of the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra are continuing to work and play this holiday season, despite the fact that their employer can't afford to pay them.

The Honolulu Advertiser and television station KGMB report that orchestra administrators told the players last week that the HSO did not have enough cash on hand to meet its biweekly $260,000 payroll last Friday — and that they probably won't be paid before the end of the year.

Nevertheless, this past Sunday (Dec. 16), the orchestra went ahead with its scheduled concert, the first performance in its home venue, Blaisdell Concert Hall, in more than two months.

HSO officials pointed to that enforced exile as a major cause of the current cash flow crisis: the orchestra was compelled to play in several smaller alternative venues this fall while the 2,100-seat Blaisdell hosted an extended run of the Disney musical The Lion King.

"[Ticket sales] slowed down a little because people weren't seeing us outside Blaisdell," HSO executive director Tom Gulick told KGMB. "And by the time they got used to seeing us at one venue, we were at another venue."

Board chairman Jeff Minter also cited a $4 million grant authorized by the Hawaii state legislature in 2006 but not yet released by Governor Linda Lingle, a Republican. "If we had had that money, we could have earned an extra $400,000 in interest by now, which would have helped a lot," he told the Advertiser. An aide to the Governor pointed out to PlaybillArts that the appropriation was a dollar-for-dollar matching grant and that the HSO has not yet provided evidence of having reached the $4 million goal. (This year the state government extended the deadline for the orchestra to raise the matching funds to June 30, 2009.)

The reduced revenue and increased expenses came at an awkward time, just as the orchestra appeared to be enjoying a period of stability after several tumultuous years.

The past decade or so has seen the Honolulu Symphony endure more than its share of troubles. There were abrupt departures at various times, including those of music director Samuel Wong, several top executives and a number of board members. An outside consultant's audit report offered harsh criticism of then-current management. And there have been several brushes with insolvency, including one in 2003-04 that led to HSO musicians and staff accepting a 20% pay cut.

By the beginning of this season, those problems appeared to be in the past, with the engagement of Gulick as executive director last year, new board members and rising attendance and donations. The arrival of well-regarded conductor Andreas Delfs as principal conductor this fall created excitement and optimism in the community and especially among the musicians. And this season the players finally had their pay restored to what it would have been had the 20% pay cut not been imposed. (Annual base pay for a Honolulu Symphony musician is now $34,500 for a 34-week season — in a city with a famously high cost of living.)

The big difference between this latest episode of financial turbulence at the HSO and others is that the decades-long atmosphere of rancor and mistrust between musicians and management (going back to, and before, a bitter strike that caused the cancellation of the orchestra's entire 1993-94 season) is gone.

"We believe they have a plan and we believe they trust us and we trust them," bassoonist Paul Barrett, chairman of the musicians' orchestra committee, told KGMB, "[and] that we're not being blamed this time, which is wonderful."

And which is why they're continuing to play, even without getting paid.

Delfs told the Advertiser that the working atmosphere has remained positive, even enthusiastic. "There hasn't been a drop in concentration at any rehearsal. That says a lot about the trust they have in the new leadership and their ability to move forward. If we can master this crisis, I feel like we're on the verge of greatness."




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