RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
"I think we've turned a corner, and I'll tell you, I've found it's easier to implement changes in Hawaii than anywhere else.
President, Honolulu Symphony
Fine-tuning the symphony
Interim President Gideon Toeplitz sees improvements in his brief tenure
YOU could try keeping track of the internal disruptions at the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra, or you could try nailing Jell-O to a tree. Your choice. Last spring, office politics at the symphony were, to put it mildly, interesting, if opaque.
A thorough housecleaning was in order, and it seems to be working. Finances are getting in hand, they say, and a new season, to be announced in a few weeks, promises a return to bread-and-butter composers such as Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.
Also, the symphony will start popping up in places you've never seen it before -- in Waikiki for Sunset on the Beach, in Diamond Head Crater for the rebirth of the Crater Festival in April -- and there will be groovily themed events, such as 40th-anniversary celebration of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper."
The search for a new executive director is in its final stages, spokeswoman Kristin Jackson said. "We hope to have someone in place in very short order." As for the big question of a new music director, Jackson said the search could continue for another year, although this season's crop of guest conductors brought to light "some very solid candidates."
THE CHAOS all started, it seems, when music director and classical music conductor Samuel Wong decided to leave, and then former first lady and symphony CEO Vicky Cayetano, brought in to make the board more businesslike, wondered out loud about President Steve Bloom's administrative ability, and he quit in a huff, making public noises about career changes, which set up Cayetano in a drag-out with board Chairwoman Carolyn Berry -- not just the biggest single contributor to the organization, but a close friend of Bloom's. Then Cayetano steamingly left, and Bloom was still quitting, and then former Bank of Hawaii CEO Mike O'Neill went, followed by the Honolulu Advertiser's Mike Fisch, and Bloom was still packing his things, and then Berry herself gave up her seat on this hurtling bus (to retired businesswoman Judy Perry), and the mystified musicians of the symphony were instructed to refer all questions to the people upstairs, that is, if anyone upstairs was still answering the phone. By this point the Bloom was off.
Into this fracas stepped Gideon Toeplitz, retired as a longtime executive with the Pittsburgh Symphony, a hired gun courtesy of the Arts Consulting Group, which had been retained by the symphony to clean the blood off the boardroom walls.
WE CHECKED IN with Toeplitz at the bunkerlike symphony offices, squirreled away in a faraway corner of Dole Cannery, to see how the Jell-O is hangin'.
The interim president remains remarkably plussed about doings at the symphony, while those around him were nonplussed. Honolulu's problems are the same as those of any big-city orchestra, he says; the only thing that goes up is expenses, while income, audiences and public interest take a slow dive.
"I've yet to find a problem that unique to Hawaii. It's the same problems everywhere. It's less money than before, it's fewer audiences than before, it's a disconnect with citizens, it's a lack of clear identity," he said.
MC PRODUCTIONS / APPLE
With the Honolulu Symphony's reorganization comes fresh perspectives in programs, including themed events such as an upcoming 40th anniversary celebration of The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper."
Some numbers, published earlier: The symphony's annual budget is a little north of $6 million -- average for an organization this size. A number of symphonies have gone belly up in the last decade, and more than half of North America's 24 orchestra have red ink on their books. Even though the number of performances has risen, the total number of seats filled has dropped.
Toeplitz's office is almost entirely devoid of personality; clearly, he's just passing through, so briefly that he doesn't want the office to seem homey. It's like he has a ticket out of town burning a hole in his pocket.
He's wearing an aloha shirt, though, something he picked up on his first day. "I adore informality," he said. "I bought a dark suit and a white shirt and a tie in June for this job, and they're still sitting in a box. I haven't touched them since."
He's a temp, and his time here is running out. Good news, though: "I think we've turned a corner, and I'll tell you, I've found it's easier to implement changes in Hawaii than anywhere else. You are less resistant. You go to Boston, and the word 'change' has not even arrived.
"Two years ago the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra was about $2 million in the hole -- annually. Now it's about $370,000. You're not out of the hole -- we need that and $275,000 more to get through the next season, let's not kid ourselves -- but our fundraising is doing so much better."
THE SYMPHONY'S mission is also more refined: Become part of the community. "The board is endorsing and committing to outreach, really focusing on customer service," Toeplitz explained. "Yes, customer service. We have to accept the fact we're in the entertainment market. Most orchestras insist they're in the cultural arts world, a world that hasn't existed for hundreds of years. They believe they are isolated from the real world, in an ivory tower."
Some of the outreach is literally that -- reaching through the "fourth wall" of the stage scrim and connecting directly to audiences instead of playing at them. "Takes tricks. Little surprises. Encores. Talking to people from the stage. Breaking down 300 years of stand-offish tradition."
This season, the financial drain has slowed to a trickle, but audience numbers are still falling. One reason was the repertoire, a collection of arty pieces by intellectual unknowns, conducted by a rotation of just-passing-through guest conductors.
"It scares audiences away, to be unfamiliar. Back to basics, music the average person has some familiarity with: Brahms, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Mozart.
"The baby boomer generation is the last to have some sort of cultural exposure in public schools. Everywhere, it's fading away, and orchestras have to take over what is being lost, to introduce new generations to such music. We need people who are the new electrons, the Microsoft thinkers of the world, connecting in ways we haven't thought of yet."
Even though the symphony plays to something like 30,000 schoolkids a year, it isn't enough. The kids are on field trips; by definition, the experience is outside the 'hood. "We have to go to them, perform in places we don't usually perform. Although it takes too much money to get to the neighbor islands, there are places on Oahu we should be getting to. We have a portable stage that seats all of us. We can go almost anywhere, connect with the community centers. You can't assume everyone will simply come to Blaisdell."
How will the musicians react?
"They know a healthy season will increase their wages," Toeplitz said. "Their compensation is already at the poverty level or below it. I think they're with us."
Attracting tourist audiences?
"Maybe, if you're very clever. It's very tough to crack the visitor market. You can only do it with superstar artists, the Seiji Ozawas, the Yo-Yo Mas, not with something completely unique to Hawaii, Cazimero Brothers, Keali'i Reichel."
What about recordings? Perhaps through the Pops arm of the organization, he said, but not the classical.
"The economics of recording don't work with a symphony because classical recordings already flood the market. ... The world doesn't need yet another Brahms record."
WHEN TOEPLITZ arrived in June, he thought he'd be gone by Labor Day. "I certainly thought the next director would be in place by spring, but I don't want to stay here that long. I can't."
A sliver of sunshine warmed his office window. At least it appeared to be sunshine, somehow bending at right angles through the canyons of Dole Cannery.
"Beautiful day," he said. "Back home, at my house north of New York City, in the Berkshires, it's very cold. I just discovered my pipes froze over the weekend." He sighed.