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Majken Mechling


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POSTED: Friday, September 18, 2009

Majken Mechling is hitting the high notes as she starts her new job as executive director of the Honolulu Symphony, optimistic that the historic organization can overcome past financial and administrative upheaval to play a key role in Hawaii's cultural life.

The fundraising pro comes aboard as part of a fiscal overhaul demanded by the Honolulu Symphony Foundation, which advanced $1.8 million to pay back wages and operating expenses.

The deal included 15 percent pay cuts for all symphony employees, and the development of a balanced budget and detailed business plan.

“;I love engaging people in the organizations that I'm working for, and I am incredibly excited about bringing that passion to the Honolulu Symphony,”; said Mechling, whose first name is pronounced My-kin.

Mechling, 51, grew up in Cape May, N.J., the fourth generation of her family raised on the picturesque isle at the state's southern tip. She graduated from Georgian Court University in nearby Lakewood; the small liberal arts college founded by the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy emphasizes service professions.

Nonprofit work brought her to Hawaii in 1982, when she took a job at the Big Island Substance Abuse Council in Hilo. She subsequently worked as executive director of the Hawaii chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Association International and as executive director of the American Diabetes Association Hawaii, the job she left for the symphony post.

Mechling and her husband, Steve, have a 13-year-old son, Cameron, who attends Niu Valley Middle School student and is an avid soccer player.

Her rare free time “;is 100 percent devoted to family”; so many Saturdays find her cheering her son on at his matches, she said.

QUESTION: When do you start the job?

ANSWER: Officially, Oct. 1.

Q: But you'll be at the symphony this Sunday?

A: Yes, absolutely. I've been there almost every day since they announced the job. There's so much to do to get it open, it's hard not to be there.

Q: What are your immediate goals?

A: Most immediate is to get ourselves financially stable. A lot of people think that because we got caught up on the payroll we're fine. We're not. Financially we're not in a position to sit back and relax. ... My job is to ensure that we do not ever again put ourselves in a position where we cannot meet payroll.

Q: The musicians' pay is up-to-date now?

A: Yes, that's correct.

Q: What exactly does the executive director do?

A: My responsibility as the paid professional staff is to ensure that we are financially stable, that we are engaged in the community, that the symphony is brought to the community in general. ... There are so many programs and services we can do — programs in schools, hospitals, senior homes. That's a big task for me, to ensure that the Honolulu Symphony is everybody's symphony. To make all of that happen I have to ensure that we have the resources to do it.

Q: So that's fundraising?

A: Yes, that's a lot of fundraising. I think most people assume that ticket sales cover the cost of the symphony and that's not even close. Currently they cover from about 25 to 30 percent of our budget.

Q: The symphony's financial and administrative upheaval has been well documented in recent years. What's different now? Or how do you make it different?

A: I think the symphony struggled with its ability to manage its funds and a big part of that was never really having enough funds. One big change is now if we don't have the funds to do something, we're not going to do it. Period. That's huge for us. The community, the donors, the funding sources have all put their faith back in this organization, and having the budget policies and procedures in place both internally and externally is key. We won't overextend ... and that is different for us.

Q: So it's about restoring faith among the donors as well?

A: Absolutely. I think one of my biggest roles and something that makes me very passionate about taking this job is that there is an amazing source of symphony donors out there who have drifted off over the years, out of frustration, or lack of information, or whatever, and we want them back ... We've been in the community for 110 years and my goal is to bring us back to a place financially where we can be here for another 110 years.

Q: What's the most important personal quality you bring to this job?

A: The most critical is being true to my word. ... If you accept somebody's donation, it's critical for them to hear what's going on ... My history in this community is that I say what I believe is the truth, say what I believe needs to be said and follow through with what I've promised. ... If there was one quality for me, it's my word, that my word is good.

Q: What are the biggest challenges facing the symphony?

A: I think one of the biggest challenges outside of the financial challenge, which is the No. 1 challenge, as we've discussed, is to engage the next generation of music lovers. That's a huge challenge for us, but it's an exciting challenge because we have such talent to share, in the outstanding conductors Andreas (Delfs) and Matt (Catingub) and the fantastic musicians.

Q: Do you have a musical background?

A: No. I have a great love for music. I have an absolute love for the symphony, but not a musical background. But that's not why they hired me. The conductors and the musicians are the artistic side of the organization. I'm here to get them what they need so they can do what they do so well.