Cuts are not music
to symphony ears

Honolulu musicians must find
alternative sources of income due
to reductions in salary

In the past 25 years, Honolulu Symphony violinist Sheryl Shohet has offered hundreds of students the same bit of advice.

"I counsel all my students not to choose music as a career," she said. "It's too hard a life. It's very frustrating, and that takes away the joy of music. And that's a crime."

The lives of Shohet and her colleagues will become even more difficult next season after a vote Thursday to accept wage cuts of 20 percent. It was a decision the performers made in the face of what they saw as an almost incomprehensible choice: Cut from their own ranks or possibly lose the symphony.

"It sounded a lot like blackmail when it first came up," said Shohet, who is in her 21st year at the symphony, "but we didn't want to see the people here in Hawaii with no music."

The 83 orchestra members are preparing to look for new jobs, cut their costs of living or increase their outside work -- not easy for many who already have stretched their schedules and budgets thin with marathon days and base salaries that will now be around $24,000.

"I was already kind of pushing it to deal with the mortgage payments," said Steve Dinion, 36, a percussionist with the symphony for the last 11 years who holds a second full-time job working for the Musicians Association of Hawaii. "Frankly, I don't know if I'll even be able to stay in Hawaii or stay with the symphony."

Ken and Katharine Hafner, 23-year symphony veterans who play the trumpet and violin, respectively, each teach a full-time load of students in their spare time.

"There aren't more days in the week," Katharine Hafner said.

Musicians are in the second year of a five-year contract and were not due to renegotiate salaries. A few weeks ago, though, symphony management told the orchestra its $1 million debt necessitated staff or pay cuts. Many performers said they were annoyed the symphony's financial problems seemed to arise so suddenly.

"When we left last spring, everything was fine," said Mark Schubert, 53, who has played the trumpet in the symphony for 27 years.

In a January interview with the Associated Press, symphony Executive Director Stephen Bloom painted a rather rosy financial portrait of his organization, saying ticket sales were strong, a $2 million deficit had been whittled down and investment returns were fairly stable. He projected the $6.6 million budget would be balanced this year.

Bloom said he began seeing negative signs in May, and mentioned at the symphony's annual meeting that the deficit was larger than expected. But performers said it was not until their return for the new season that chatter about possible pay or staff cuts began. It was not until a few weeks ago that firm proposals surfaced.

When talks between management and musicians began, union negotiators say, it became clear their choice was not whether there would be cuts, but where they would be made.

The acceptance of the wage concessions released $2.1 million in pledged donations to eliminate symphony debt and reduce its deficit. The donations were given under the condition that a commitment to raise money be made and expenses and salaries be cut.

Honolulu's new wage base will make it one of the lowest-paid orchestras in the country. The average base salary nationwide was $58,450, according to the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. Bloom said the Honolulu Symphony's size was comparable to those in Louisville, Ky., Nashville, Tenn., and Buffalo, N.Y., which have base salaries of about $32,280 to $37,245, according to the symphony conference.


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