CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / Crussell@starbulletin.com
Concertmaster Ignace "Iggy" Jang leads members of the Hawaii Youth Symphony in a performance in front of the Blaisdell Concert Hall. The February event was organized to rally support for the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra. Hundreds of classical musicians, parents and music lovers attended.
Facing the music
The musicians struggle to make ends meet as the symphony's financial struggles continue
No matter how deeply it has been affected by financial hardship, the Honolulu Symphony has survived to the end of the season. After many rehearsals and concerts, managerial clarifications and community involvement, the finale unfolds this week.
Overall, the last concerts of this season have proved the consistent merit of both orchestra and conductor. At the end of March, maestro Andreas Delfs conducted a forceful "Symphonie Fantastique" in an all-French concert featuring pianist Pascal Rogé in an exquisite interpretation of Ravel's Concerto in G Major.
For the occasion of the April 11 Choral Festival, director Karen Kennedy conducted Fauré's and Duruflé's Requiems, in an experimental combination with Na Leo Kuho'okahi's hula ensemble and the Hawai'i Youth Opera Chorus.
For the last two concerts, two great soloists joined the symphony -- one-of-a-kind baritone Thomas Hamson and world-famous pianist Dubravka Tomsic -- both much appreciated by the audience.
But for 10 weeks, orchestra musicians have performed without pay, relying on management assurances that retroactive payroll adjustments are to come. Finally, on Friday the musicians received checks for a portion of what they are owed, but they are still behind -- while facing the three-month summer layoff after the last concert of the season.
Although it is not a general trend, other U.S. regional orchestras also have been suffering dramatically. Last month the 53 full-time musicians of the Columbus (Ohio) Symphony were asked to take a 40 percent salary cut; they refused and the symphony has suspended operations.
Comparing the financial hardship in Columbus with the Honolulu Symphony, we might think that things could go worse for us. Not really. The Columbus musicians were facing an annual cut from a minimum $55,200 salary to $33,000; our musicians are earning just $34,500 yearly as it is. And in Hawaii, as we very well know, living costs are higher than in most mainland cities.
During hard financial times, we seek extra jobs. But think: Mainland musicians have far more options. They can find work in nearby venues a reasonable drive away.
And what about married couples working for the symphony? How many extra jobs are available for them in Hawaii? Why do they still perform with the symphony?
STAR-BULLETIN / 2007
Andreas Delfs has led the symphony in forceful and effective performances during difficult times.
Too many questions. So I decided to learn more about some Honolulu Symphony musicians. We music lovers hear them perform all year long, but never get to know who they really are.
Their primary work is in the orchestra; most of them have lived here for a while. There are seven married couples and one couple soon-to-be-married. It is a large group of people from diverse backgrounds, but a common deep love for Hawaii.
» Michiko Singh, is half-Japanese, half-East Indian -- a hornist with two degrees from the Juilliard School in New York, 15 years orchestral experience in the Hong Kong, Vancouver, Memphis and Hartford symphonies. She has been with the Honolulu Symphony for eight years, but the financial difficulties here have prompted her to audition for seven mainland jobs. She was a finalist for a position in the Los Angeles Philharmonic in November, a job that pays five times more then her current one.
» Violinist Emma Philips, after four seasons with the Honolulu Symphony and several years teaching violin at Punahou School and privately, will audition on the mainland soon. She now works for the symphony's Community Relations Committee to strengthen musicians' relationships with the audience, labor unions and the community at large, and is working on an electronic newsletter.
» Associate Concertmaster Claire Hazzard started playing violin at Pauoa Elementary School, continuing later under the guidance of symphony musicians while studying psychology. She played in the Hawaii Youth Symphony and school orchestras, then with the Don Ho Show. While taking a course in Education Foundations at the University of Hawaii, she was offered a position in the second violin section with the orchestra. She is now married to symphony trumpet player Don Hazzard.
» Both of cellist Karen Bechtel's parents played for the Honolulu Symphony. Her father, Dale, was concertmaster and sometimes conducted pops concerts. Her mother played viola. Both had other jobs as well, and Karen finds that today's financial condition is not so different from her parents' time. Her parents' friends were also symphony musicians and they spent evenings together playing music. Her father established a string program for elementary to high school students, and she became an orchestra student. She performed in string quartets in high school, and today still plays with some of the same people. They are today's teachers. And some of their students already have positions in mainland symphonies.
» Riely Francis joined the Honolulu Symphony in 1997 and is the associate principal percussionist. He has performed with the San Diego, Houston, Atlanta, San Francisco symphonies, and in the Grand Teton Music Festival and Chamber Music Hawaii. He loves musical styles besides orchestral: R.E.M., Radiohead, Talking Heads, Velvet Underground, the "Texas tradition of Outlaw Country music," and some punk. He is looking for local gigs.
Although as different as the instruments they play, all these musicians accepted their positions because they believed in the Honolulu Symphony's high level of artistry and musicianship. Let's embrace their commitment at next week's finale.
Valeria Wenderoth reviews classical music for the Star-Bulletin. She has a doctorate in musicology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she also teaches.