Yet more trouble for Honolulu

Things look bleak in Honolulu, even after a $1.8 million gift in September:

The chairman of the Honolulu Symphony’s board of directors told KITV on Wednesday, that as of last Friday, the symphony did not have enough money to make its payroll.

Peter Shaindlin said he hopes to make an announcement about the symphony’s future by the end of the day Friday. He refused to confirm whether the orchestra will file for bankruptcy or postpone part of its season.

The symphony has already put off two concerts this weekend.

Meanwhile, KITV has learned the musicians’ union filed a complaint with the federal labor board, because the symphony reduced the pay of 25 part-time musicians retroactively, without negotiating with the union. The union said that violates federal labor law.

Symphony leaders said they disagree with the union’s complaint.

The union filed its complaint with the National Labor Relations Board on Oct. 23, the same day part-time musicians found their paychecks were reduced by as much as 50 percent, according to Steve Dinion, a symphony percussionist and union spokesman. He said the amount of money in question is worth “several thousand dollars.”

He called the move “an unprecedented illegal attack on our contract.”

The symphony has not made payments to the musicians’ pension fund for months, Dinion also said.

The symphony has already slashed $1 million from its operating budget this year, paring expenses down to $7 million, Dinion said. He said full-time musicians have taken 15 percent paycuts worth $500,000 of those savings. In September, the symphony repaid employees 15 weeks of back pay, with the help of a $1.8 million dollar advance from the symphony’s foundation’s endowment.

A statement in an earlier article that the orchestra has “struggled financially for the past several years” is one of the great understatements of the year, though. For reasons which are not clear to me, the Honolulu Symphony has been a poster child for institutional dysfunction since before I came into this business, as a quick review of the archives of Senza Sordino will demonstrate.

from the April 1969 Senza Sordino:

Twenty-eight members including the orchestra chairman were dismissed from their positions in the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra by the new Musical Director, Mr. Robert LaMarchina, during May, 1969, three weeks after the end of the symphony seasons. The Symphony members had just ratified a new contract on the strength of specific promises by Mr. I. B. Peterson, president of Local 677, to set up a renewal committee from members of the orchestra and to enforce any decisions made by this committee. Subsequently, seventeen musicians appealed to the Local for review by Mr. Peterson’s renewal committee; ten of these appeals were upheld by the committee, but only ONE orchestra member was reinstated as a direct result of union action. Four other members were given belated union support in the form of a compromise, and the other five upheld members including Orchestra Committee Chairman Lawrence Pride were refused any support by the Local. Mr. Pride, who had been very active for two years as chairman, was forced to dissolve his business, sell his home, and move from Hawaii with his wife and three children in order to find another position.

from the October 1984 Senza Sordino:

Honolulu Symphony musicians are in the second year of a three-year contract ratified last April following 17 months of negotiation, including 8 months of playing and talking. Season length was reduced from 38 to 34 weeks in 1983-84 while weekly wage remained frozen at $370.80… Offsetting minimal financial gains are complete changes in board leadership and management, establishment of a five-year plan and joint musicians-management-board committee, and a successful endowment campaign.

from the February 1987 Senza Sordino:

After having taken cuts in two successive negotiations, the HSO musicians became aware that our orchestra was out of control. Our jobs were going nowhere, the artistic integrity of the Honolulu Symphony was in jeopardy, and despite repeated attempts to help the management, things were getting worse. A terrible helplessness and hopelessness settled over the orchestra. Our (16-week) strike took the control of our jobs and our lives out of the hand and management and put it into our own…

from the February 1994 Senza Sordino:

On December 29, a Federal District Court in Honolulu confirmed arbitration awards requiring the Honolulu Symphony Society to pay nearly $400,000 in back pay and benefits owed the musicians of the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra as a result of unilateral cuts imposed by the Society during the 1992-93 season.

from the April 1996 Senza Sordino:

Musicians of the last two professional orchestras in Hawaii have returned to work as of December 27, 1995 as the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra once again. The musicians had been laid off except for some per–service work for Nutcracker and Messiah since mid–September. A contract for the remainder of the 1995-96 season and the 1996-97 season was completed with the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra board. After those negotiations were completed the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra board stepped out of the way to let the Honolulu Symphony Society produce the remainder of the already set–up 95-96 season. The two boards will consolidate into the Honolulu Symphony Society over an as–yet undetermined period of time.

The Hawaii Symphony Orchestra, which was founded after the Honolulu Symphony Society fired all of its musicians in the spring of 1994, never really solidified itself as an institution. From the beginning, everything needed to go right for the new orchestra to survive. Things rarely went right, and the musicians have paid dearly. The State of Hawaii pulled almost $1 million in funding, and the City and County of Honolulu pulled $75,000 in funding for the 95-96 season. Some questionable management buried the orchestra even further. The board was unable to raise money, partially because of their internal problems, and partially because community leaders took a “wait and see” attitude and refused to have anything to do with the new orchestra as long as both the Honolulu Symphony Society and the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra existed. All this brings the orchestra to where it is today, which is virtually starting over.

The contract for the next two years reflects the reality of the situation:

Year 1: 10 weeks; 4 more weeks contingent on the opening of the Hawaii Theater (a newly renovated theater in Honolulu). Three of the contingent weeks will be paid at a six–services–per–week pro- rated salary, instead of the usual eight services per week.

Year 2: 18 weeks. Neither year includes opera, which is negotiated directly with the Hawaii Opera Theater (they have sub-contracted the orchestra from the Symphony Society in the past)….

Still to be dealt with is the issue of the back pay owed the musicians by the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra (this amounts to a minimum of $16,000 per full–time musician), over $100,000 in pension payments owed to the AFM-EP, and approximately $250,000 owed to various governmental agencies for payroll taxes withheld but never forwarded to the appropriate agencies by management. The Honolulu Symphony Society has said they will assume no debts of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra.

The Hawaii Symphony board is in a very poor position to raise any money to cover any of these obligations, and unfortunately the IRS has first say on any assets available to make these payments. The pension payment falls under federal pension law, but it is unclear what kind of enforcement of those laws would occur if the organization dissolved or filed for bankruptcy. The musicians have little hope that all of our back pay will be forthcoming, but we are still working on getting some of it.

Needless to say this is not a good contract for the musicians, but it is the best possible agreement available. We are essentially starting over with the institutional memory in many areas of the management virtually gone. It was clear that if the orchestra did not start with the services on December 27, 1995 that the orchestra would not start up again for a long time.

What’s clear from this litany of disaster upon disaster is that the Honolulu Symphony has never had a functioning board of directors, or at least not for long enough to make a difference. A lack of support from local and state government hasn’t helped; both have pulled the plug on funding and venues on multiple occasions in ways that have made it very hard for even a competent management (on those infrequent occasions when the HSO has had one) to run an orchestra responsibly.

But the key deficit is one of governance. Some poor choices of music directors (although the current MD was, to my mind, a very good choice) and some clearly disastrous choices for staff leadership all point to that. But the continued turmoil in labor relations and the string of broken promises to the musicians are not only heartbreaking, but are the invariably accurate “tells” about the quality of the board.

If I was king for a day, I would bar any orchestra from hiring musicians which could not demonstrate adequate and sustained strength in board leadership, recruitment, and self-evaluation to allow the board to keep its promises and fulfill its fiduciary responsibilities to the community as stewards of the institution. Too many musicians’ lives have been ruined in too many places by the actions of “boards” such as those inflicted upon the musicians of the Honolulu Symphony.

Boards, staffs, and musicians are all regarded by those who create the jargon for our field as “stakeholders.” But the stakes they hold are profoundly different. When board members fail, they walk away, a little embarrassed perhaps, but at least without the burdensome chore of having to raise, or donate, money for the institution they’ve failed. When staff members fail, or when their boards fail, they are unemployed, but generally have skills that are marketable in other non-profit industries.

But, when board members or staffs fail, musicians’ careers, and livelihoods, die.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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