Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, October 8, 2001


Honolulu Symphony
starts 2nd century
on upbeat note

The group's new director cites
artistic and financial stability

By Tim Ryan

Season 101 for the Honolulu Symphony may be the organization's most critical.

In the last decade the symphony has suffered through one financial crisis after another, periods of administrative carelessness, a complete shutdown, hiring freezes, chronically underpaid musicians and a near bankruptcy, only to be saved at the last minute through major donations.

The 100th-anniversary season last year was noteworthy in the number and quality of artists who performed with the symphony and its pops orchestra, but at a staggering cost, reportedly highest in the symphony's storied history, sources said.

Panic seemed to be the prevailing attitude at the symphony's Dole Cannery offices, where as much energy was spent putting out fires as starting new ones. Some weeks, it wasn't even certain if salaries could be paid or enough tickets sold to break even.

But what the symphony lacked in cash it made up for in flair.

Musical director Sam Wong, who had a love-hate relationship with departed executive director Michael Tiknis, not only conducts brilliantly and athletically, but has forged a trusting relationship with the musicians. Wong, who also conducts the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, attracted top talent from around the world and makes frequent appearances, enthusiastically promoting the symphony.

Pops conductor Matt Catingub has added a zest to that section of the organization, getting major headliners to appear, in part by writing musical arrangements for them they can use elsewhere.

Catingub connects with audiences as if in their homes. He involves the audience, providing anecdotes about the music or his friendship with an artist, even grabbing a sax or jumping behind the piano to join in.

Even former director Tiknis got into the act, appearing on radio shows announcing the weekend's concerts, spontaneously holding contests for tickets or simply engaging in frenetic promotion.

The result was an increase in season subscriptions the last three years -- and debt.

No one wants to name names of those responsible for the crisis or even say what's been done in the last several months since new director Stephen Bloom came on board.

But symphony executives have spent lots of time meeting with their business sponsors to assure them the organization is now financially solvent and fiscally responsible, with long-range viable plans and, perhaps as important, that stars Wong and Catingub are under contract and staying.

"We had to change the perception in the community to the realization that we are now a well-run, responsible organization," said Bloom.

The symphony's goal for years was to survive; today it's to thrive, he said.

"It's time for the organization to start having fun," added former marketing director Andy Wood.

The fun began yesterday before the Pops concert starring Christopher Cross at the Blaisdell Concert Hall. For the season's opening, a pre-party was held on the lawn outside the hall, featuring the Iolani Jazz Band. Guests enjoyed pupus and champagne. The inside and outside of the concert hall were festooned with colorful symphony signs and banners. (The opening of the Halekulani Classical MasterWorks tomorrow and Oct. 16 will also have a pre-performance party out front.)

Pops musicians this season will wear aloha shirts donated by Hilo Hattie's.

"This is Hawaii, and Pops is a more relaxed atmosphere, so we want to live the part," Bloom said.

The director is careful with his words.

"This is a turned-around symphony with financial and artistic stability and very focused on the community," he said. "We're here to stay. There are no looming financial disasters. There is confidence among donors."

Earlier this year, an anonymous donor offered $1 million if the symphony could find matching donations. It did. A second $1 million offer has been made, with a Dec. 31 deadline. Bloom declines details, not wanting to sabotage the deal.

Season subscription sales are up almost 20 percent for the seven Pops concerts; MasterWorks sales are down 2 percent, but officials are confident these numbers will be up as well.

As part of its new fiscal responsibility, the symphony discontinued the popular but money-losing Starlight series at the Waikiki Shell. The city charges a 10 percent commission on ticket sales at the venue, as compared to the $1,000 it charges for the concert hall.

The Waikiki Shell's higher cost pushed revenues into the loss column, officials said.

This season, concertgoers can get up close and personal with many of the musicians who will mingle outside before and after some concerts.

"The orchestra is really the star no matter who we are presenting that evening," said Alan Rakov, the new marketing director. "We want them to put a face and personality on every member of the orchestra."

Wong said "there's no question" that the orchestra has improved artistically.

"We've forged a consistent ... style and high level of performance week after week," he said. "We can play a greater range of repertoire, from Mahler to Stravinsky, Bach to Bartok, contemporary music and Hawaiiana."

Wong said Bloom's presence is a major reason he decided to stay after his contract expired earlier this year. "He's a straight shooter, honest, demanding and excited about the art. My commitment to Hawaii is absolute and through thick and thin. Believe me, I've been through thin here."

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