Symphonic growth

2003-04 MasterWorks schedule

It's been eight years since Honolulu Symphony music director and conductor Samuel "Sam" Wong -- then just 33 with as much self-confidence as energy and talent -- first stood on the Blaisdell Concert Hall podium to direct what had been a discouraged, under- appreciated and practically bankrupt orchestra.

Wong says he was no single savior in the organization's survival, but one of several apostles who helped steer the symphony back to artistic "maturity," stability and a semblance of harmony.

Soprano Deborah Voigt will perform Jan. 2 and 4.

There have been difficult growing pains between the maestro -- who has a medical degree in ophthalmology and seems to enjoy being called "Dr. Wong" -- and the musicians. But like many relationships, hanging in there eventually improves matters.

"Artistically we're more stable, more sophisticated in our repertoire and on the leading edge of musical direction," Wong says over coffee and crab cakes at the Halekulani Hotel, where he resides when conducting here. "Collectively, the musicians have gotten better; we have all grown."

The Honolulu Symphony kicks off its 2003-04 MasterWorks season tonight at the Blaisdell Concert Hall featuring internationally acclaimed violinist Midori, with Wong conducting.

It's customary for the symphony season opener to feature a major star, and Midori is a Wong favorite for several reasons.

"It really doesn't get any bigger than Midori on a star basis, and (at 30) she represents such youth and vigor in an industry that always needs new life breathed into it," he says.

But Midori stands for something other than stardom.

"In Japan she visits villages to play and interact with people who have never heard classical music," Wong says. "She also does residencies at universities to actually make music with college kids rather than just wow them as a star. She's not the kind of superstar who skips out with her fee right after the concerto finishes."

The new season features 28 performances over 14 concert weekends and includes several classical masterpieces: Orff's "Carmina Burana" and Brahms' "German Requiem," Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony and Mahler's Seventh Symphony.

Maestro Samuel Wong, left, and Stanislov Ioudenitch.

"We're writing a new chapter in ... artistic development," Wong says. "That so many of classical music's most exciting artists are coming to Hawaii to work with us shows our growing international reputation and ... commitment to our art."

The season also will feature such musical luminaries as flutist Sir James Galway and the Metropolitan Opera's star soprano Deborah Voigt.

"When I first arrived in Honolulu, we weren't able to do some of the mature artistic programs we're doing now because of tremendous budget constraints and other matters," Wong said. "The truth is, no symphony of our budget, about $6 million, can ever really be considered stable. I can't window-dress that, but compared to many other symphonies in the United States, we really are doing quite well."

The upcoming season reflects "a real programming philosophy and themes which make artistic sense and derive from long-term planning ... rather than lurching from one popular program to another being box office-driven," he said.

For example, the symphony has developed an "East-West" program which fits "perfectly" in Hawaii, where there are constant examples of Eastern and Western cultures, Wong said.

The orchestra has performed with taiko drum master Kenny Endo in a drum concerto commissioned by Wong. The orchestra also has performed concerts reflecting the Korean's centennial of immigration to Hawaii, as well as special Japanese and Chinese programs.

Sir James Galway, left, and Vladimir Feltsman.

Later this month, the symphony presents "East/West Synthesis" with Tang Jun Qiao -- the flutist in "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" -- playing the dizi. The concert is a synthesis of Eastern music and instruments with the Western symphony orchestra featuring two unique works for pipa and dizi.

EACH SEASON ALSO includes Western traditional classics, which Wong describes as "the roots of any symphony orchestra." These include works by Beethoven, Brahms, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Saint-Saens and Schubert.

The season's remarkable programs, planned nearly a year in advance, are more astounding considering the organization's minuscule budget and endowment. Nationwide, many symphonies at best are having to cut back programming, and at worst, going bankrupt.

"We have a problem common to all orchestras: a venue with a fixed amount of seats, about 2,200, so we have two concerts with each artist to maximize ticket sales," Wong said. "As for raising ticket prices, well, you can only do that so much before people stop coming."

So the symphony must rely on private contributions, foundations and state and local government funding, which have diminished some 80 percent in the last decade.

"We do have some very powerful supporters who love the Honolulu Symphony, but having one or two givers who cover your budget is not as meaningful as having 5,000 who chip in 10 percent of their income," Wong said. "We need depth and breadth of contributors."

Symphonies nationwide are looking at a variety of ways to increase audience numbers. A recent report by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation offers a view of what they describe as "an art form in transition and an orchestra field increasingly detached from its potential customers." Symphony orchestras "are adrift in a sea of classical music consumers who rarely, if ever, attend concerts," the report says.

Consumers may listen to classical radio and recordings in their automobiles and homes, and attend live concerts in churches, schools and traditional concert venues, but just 10 to 15 percent of Americans have a close or moderately close relationship with classical music.

According to the 15-city study, one in four adults are potential orchestra ticket buyers. But only half of those who express high levels of preference for attending classical music concerts actually attend, even infrequently.

Wong agrees that changes are needed to woo ever-changing audiences, in part, a wedding of technology (the future) with classical music (the past).

The study says audiences for symphonies look healthy but that orchestras are hard pressed to adapt to a rapidly evolving cultural landscape and to respond competitively to marketing challenges and public pressure for more intense leisure experiences.

"We have to engage classical consumers in different settings at different levels of sophistication," Wong said. "That doesn't mean dumbing down artistic standards, but it does mean taking risks -- I dare say both financial and artistic, on both sides of the stage.

"This isn't something negative or to fear, but to embrace. Change is difficult, even uncomfortable, but we have come so far in eight years, I'm confident we all can adjust to this future, wherever it leads us."


Schedule for the Honolulu Symphony
2003-04 MasterWorks season

All concerts take place at the Blaisdell Concert Hall. For information call 792-2000.

>> Today and Sunday -- Midori (see accompanying story).

>> Next Friday and Sept. 14 -- "Russian Romance," featuring pianist Vladimir Feltsman and guest conductor Tadaaka Otaka in a program featuring Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2, Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 and Liadov's "The Enchanted Lake," Op. 62.

>> Sept. 19 and 21 -- "East/West Synthesis," stars Tang Jun Qiao on dizi, with Samuel Wong conducting works for pipa and dizi, including a tale of a nightingale whose song moves the Emperor of China to tears.

>> Oct. 10 and 12 -- Cellist Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi plays Tchaikovsky's "Variations on a Rococo Theme," with Wong conducting. Other works are Strauss's "Don Juan," Op. 20; Bruch's "Kol Nidrei," Op. 47; and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major, Op. 70.

>> Oct. 17 and 19 -- "Brahms' Majestic Requiem" puts the spotlight on the Honolulu Symphony Chorus, directed by Karen Kennedy. Other works to be performed are Sisler's "Cosmic Divide," Busoni's Concertino for Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra and Debussy's Rhapsody for Clarinet and Orchestra, with Scott Anderson on clarinet.

>> Oct. 24 and 26 -- "Great Americans -- The Honolulu Symphony's Stars," features Mike Szabo on bass trombone and Darel Stark on violin, with Naoto Otomo conducting a program featuring Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, Op. 74 ("Pathetique"), plus Ewazen's Concerto for Bass Trombone and W. Schuman's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.

>> Nov. 7 and 9 -- "Exotic Nights" -- Concertmaster Ignace "Iggy" Jang is featured in Rimsky-Korsakov's masterpiece "Scheherazade," conducted by Chris Wilkins. Also featured on the program are Debussy's "La Mer" and Takemitsu's "Archipelago S."

>> Nov. 14 and 16 -- Van Cliburn winner Stanislov Ioudenitch performs Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22, in addition to the orchestra's performance of Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in C Major D 944 ("The Great"). Scott Yoo is the guest conductor.

>> Jan. 2 and 4 -- Soprano Deborah Voigt, fresh from a triumphant season at New York's Metropolitan Opera and recently named Musical America's "Vocalist of the Year 2003," performs Wagner's "Tannhauser: Overture and Venusberg Music," "Dich Eure Halle" from "Tannhauser" and "Der Fliegende Hollander," plus Strauss's "Vier Letzte Lieder" (Four Last Songs). Wong conducts.

>> March 19 and 21 -- Known as a supreme interpreter of the classical flute repertoire, Sir James Galway is joined by Lady Jeanne Galway in performances of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90; Cimarosa's Concerto in G Major for Two Flutes; and Mercandante's Concerto for Flute and Strings in E minor, Op. 57.

>> March 26 and 28 -- Violinist Tamaki Kawakubo returns to perform Janacek's "Taras Bulba" and Dvorak's Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 53. The symphony also presents Smetana's master work Ma Vlast ("My Fatherland") Nos. 2, 3 and 6. Wong conducts.

>> April 2 and 4 -- "Carmina Burana" equals total theater in which music, words and movement illuminate a sequence of poems. Featured will be soprano Alicia Berneche, tenor Laurence Paxton, baritone Lorenzo Formosa and the Honolulu Symphony Chorus, with assistant conductor Joan Landry joining conductor and chorus director Karen Kennedy.

>> May 14 and 16 -- Brahms, Beethoven and Berlioz (the Three B's) are served up by Jane Coop on piano and Mark Butin on viola, with Wong conducting the Haydn variations; Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15; and Berlioz's "Harold in Italy," Op. 16.

>> May 28 and 30 -- "Dueling Dichters," featuring the piano playing couple Misha and Cipa performing Mendelssohn's Concerto for Two Pianos in E Major, while the symphony closes its season with Mahler's enigmatic Symphony No. 7 in E minor.

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