Something sure is broken in Honolulu

I don’t know that this has ever happened in an orchestra bankruptcy before:

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Faris yesterday denied the Honolulu Symphony Society’s request to extend the period in which it alone could submit a plan for its reorganization.

The decision allows the symphony’s musicians and other parties to submit competing plans for the troubled organization’s emergence from bankruptcy. Until yesterday, the symphony society had the exclusive role of coming up with a reorganization plan.

In asking for an extension, the symphony society said it took a long time to complete a comprehensive organizational analysis, which is needed before it can come up with a reorganization plan.

The 258-page analysis, prepared by Honolulu Symphony Foundation chairman Mark Wong and his company, Data Collection Systems, was released last week and includes recommendations for drastically reducing the symphony’s concert schedule and overall budget. The Musicians’ Association of Hawai’i, Local 677 of the American Federation of Musicians, has criticized the report as flawed in its data collection and analysis and biased against the symphony musicians.

Faris characterized the situation as a “mutual firing squad,” and said his decision was intended to “keep the door as wide open as possible.”

Good for him. I suspect the plan looked a little fishy to him too.

I became curious after reading the entire article and found a copy of the plan. It’s a real stinker; to call it “flawed in its data collection and analysis and biased against the symphony musicians” understates the case. It’s the kind of document that doesn’t even try¬† to be consistent from one page to the next. To illustrate with just one example: page 12 contains doom and gloom about the trend in “States Arts Agency Legislative Appropriations” (and in fact the trend for state funding is far worse than it is for the more important metrics.) The report states that “state governments are important supporters of arts and culture, reaching many communities, organizations and artists.” So obviously it’s bad for the orchestra industry that “constant dollar state funding declined… by more than 37 percent from its peak in 2001.”

Except that, on page 17, the report states that “few American orchestras get major support from their state or local governments.” The report is just chock full of goodies like that.

What’s really broken in Honolulu not what the report describes as a “100-year-old business model” (which in itself is a ridiculous thing to claim and which is contradicted elsewhere in the report). What’s broken is a board that thinks that listing the outside employment of each individual member of the orchestra in an Appendix is not only appropriate, but proves that the massive pay cuts they’re proposing really won’t devastate the orchestra: “a 50% reduction in pay would result in a net 17.5% drop in total wages for an employee receiving 35% of pay from HSO.”

And where does the 34% come from? “The HSO season accounts for approximately 34% of a standard 2,000 hour work-year.”

No wonder the Honolulu Symphony has had one near-fatal labor dispute after another over most of its history. Not only does the board not have a clue; clearly they have no desire to have a clue.

I wish sometimes that we had the equivalent of baseball franchises. If a community ever deserved to have its orchestra taken away and moved to a new home because of abuse, it’s Honolulu.

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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