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Symphony needs public support in hard times


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POSTED: Friday, November 06, 2009

Having battled financial problems for decades, the Honolulu Symphony is on the verge of bankruptcy reorganization this week, which came as no surprise during the current recession. Such a move should work to stabilize what has been an important cultural asset of this island for more than a century.

Upon becoming the symphony's executive director little more than six weeks ago, Majken Mechling said her most immediate goal was “;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.”;

The bulk of the symphony's revenue comes not from tickets, which pay for only 30 percent to 40 percent of the budget, but from donations by corporations and wealthy individuals and from state and federal funds; all have taken a hit from the economy.

Last season, the $1.17 million donation by a woman who is a longtime symphony volunteer kept the orchestra afloat. The symphony received a $1.8 million advance from the Honolulu Symphony Foundation in September to pay back wages and operating expenses.

The 64 full-time and 19 part-time musicians received 11 weeks back pay from last season, which ended in May.

The symphony also reduced the current season from 34 weeks to 29 weeks, and the orchestra's musicians, represented by the Musicians Association of Hawaii Local 677, agreed to the resulting 15 percent salary reduction.

The operating budget appears to have increased significantly in recent years. After operating in the red for three years, the symphony ran at about $6 million a year during the first half of this decade, according to Stephen Bloom, the symphony's president during that period.

Last season's budget was $8.2 million, $1 million more than the 2007-08 budget. Much of last season's increase was due to restoration of previous musician wage cuts that had been imposed four years earlier, a move that has become an all too familiar refrain.

The symphony hinted last week at what was coming when it canceled two concerts that had been scheduled for this weekend at Blaisdell Concert Hall. In a press release, it said that it “;will not stage productions unless fully supported by the budget.”; The concerts have been tentatively moved to sometime in the future.

While the symphony struggles with making ends met, Honolulu cannot afford to let this valued feature sail into the sunset because of a shortage of donations during a temporary economic crisis.