Profile of the music man
Honolulu Symphony at a glance
Classical concert tickets
By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Editor
Stephen D. Bloom, the Honolulu Symphonys executive director since December, says hes been putting out so many fires lately, he feels like a fireman.
"The job had fallen into the culture of crisis management," said Bloom, 32, formerly of the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra, where he spearheaded that organizations reversal of fortune. He took on the challenge to do the same for our artistically healthy but financially ailing orchestra.
"I didnt come here to be a firefighter," he said. "My job, simply, is to change the culture of the organization."
He has begun by lopping off overhead, imposing belt-tightening measures and empowering all committees while demanding accountability.
Hes fine-tuning next seasons schedule in an effort to broaden attendance, with a handful of Saturday night classical concerts instead of the accustomed Tuesday outings, which have been less well attended.
And hes planned the first of two retreats for staff and the board in February to talk, to dream, to envision the future.
Ideally, this battle plan will eliminate the fire drills.
"You get stuck in the cycle, and never get past the crises," he said. "I think thats why theres been a lack of success with this orchestra."
Dove in head first
He took the job knowing the symphony has a $1.4 million deficit, a paltry endowment of $6 million, far below the desired $20 million. With the orchestras annual budget at $5.9 million, the task was daunting.
"I dove in head first," he said. "But Im really optimistic. The tenor in which the musicians and board are working together, the wonderful spirit of cooperation, seems to indicate that theres hope to get back on track."
Bloom helped engineer with the help of the symphonys new board chair Carolyn Berry and the blessings of the 63 full-time members of the orchestra a no-pay-raise, one-year contract extension for the 2001-2002 season, starting this fall.
With that contract in place, Bloom will not have to deal with labor negotiations or the threat of a strike. That would have been a five-alarm fire he didnt need in his first season of trying to raise revenues and heighten the orchestras visibility in the community.
None of this is new to Bloom. When he took over the reins of the Tacoma orchestra in 1996, that organization also had a deficit of $100,000 on an annual budget of $250,000. "We reorganized our boards and committees, and everyone had to be accountable to the board, so nothing ever was a surprise," he said. Within three years, attendance was up and the orchestras finances were stable.
Denise Cline, who worked with Bloom as the Tacoma Symphonys operations manager, said Bloom was savvy at fund-raising, "putting the polish on our annual gala. His incredible willingness to work, his positive attitude, was a driving force in making the Tacoma a $1 million orchestra."
Natalie Whitcomb, a Tacoma board member, described Bloom as "very dynamic, upbeat, energetic, tenacious, quite charming, and optimistic; he doesnt have the word cant in his vocabulary; he always had a vision on how something was going to work and it was always out of the tradition of what we had done in the past. He took us to levels that we had dreamed about but maybe didnt know how to get there."
Wants long-range plan
Earlier, he helped keep the Sacramento Symphony out of bankruptcy proceedings and managed to jump-start the Buffalo Philharmonic after a six-month shutdown.
"My goal is to get a long-range plan in place in Honolulu, so that this organization can grow and move on. If I were to walk out tomorrow or fall off a cliff, I want to be assured that this place will be growing and thriving," said Bloom. He has an 18-month contract, subject to review and renewal at the end of the first year.
Blooms vision is what led the orchestra membership to ratify the one-year contract, said Scott Anderson, principal clarinetist and head of the Musicians Orchestra Committee. "We were impressed with his interest in converting the organization from one with the mentality of survival and maintaining, to one with the mentality of thinking in terms of long term, and community service. You know, the bigger picture," said Anderson.
The contract freezes salaries (starting pay is $26,000 a year for 33 weeks of work) at year 2000 levels a sacrifice but also a leap of faith. "The musicians are a sophisticated bunch of people whove been through difficult times, but the average musician is well-informed on how the symphony functions, what its history is, and where it wants to go," said Anderson. "In short order, we understand how Stephen Bloom and Carolyn Berry want to make it all work, and were simply giving them a little wind at their back."
Conductor and music director Samuel Wong also endorses Blooms work style and vision. "Stephen is a people person and is readily likeable; he has that quality of drawing you in," he said. "I think hes a visionary and well-spoken, and a realist; he doesnt blow smoke. He lets you know the situation as it is and thats very refreshing to me."
Wong anticipates harmony at the board and administrative levels, too. "I think were on the mend," he said. "We have more excitement on the board and a lot more commitment, emotionally and financially. And were talking about a colleague here: Stephen studied to be a conductor, and for me, thats a wonderful treat, because he also knows music."
Cannot tackle task alone
New board chief Berry has begun the reorganization of the committees, recruiting new leaders. This tactic, too, echoes Blooms Tacoma remedy.
"One year from now, when we sit down to begin negotiations on a new agreement, I will have to answer questions regarding the financial stability, long-term strategic vision, and plans to extend outreach programs in the community," Berry said. "This is quite a task, one that Steve and I cannot tackle alone."
Berry has enlisted Richard Griffith, former head of Queens Health Systems, to chair the corporate giving committee. Margery Bronster, former attorney general, will spearhead the effort to create a long-term strategic plan, modeled after those employed by successful orchestras around the world but taking into considerations Honolulus mid-Pacific environment and rich cultural diversity. And Wade Butin, an orchestra musician, will lead an effort to revitalize the concert experience.
Bloom has had to haul out the snippers in dealing with the budget, but so far, nobodys complaining. "When I came in, I cut $150,000 in expenses," he said. "Were at the bone. But we found that we could make this work."
The next hurdle is to find new fuel for the musical machine: "We need to get a system in place to generate revenues to operate this organization . . . We want people to notice that were not throwing away good money, that were responsibly managed. That will ease our efforts in soliciting donations and funds."
He knew of the Honolulu orchestras reputation great music, lousy finances before he took the job. "In the interviewing process and learning about this organization, it became crystal clear to me that much needed to be done," he said. "And one of the biggest reasons I took the job was that I felt I could make a difference."
He already has, by instituting, starting with the classical season this fall, occasional Saturday night concerts, to experiment with attendance and acknowledging requests for a weekend show. "Not everyone is inclined to go out on a Tuesday night," he said of the longstanding Sunday-and-Tuesday agenda.
Bloom also wants to better the relationship between corporations and individuals in the community in an effort to build the orchestras endowment, meant to be an investment fund that generates revenues through accrued interest. By national standards, the orchestras endowment is puny. John Graham, the Florida-based arts administrator who served as a consultant to the Honolulu Symphony last year, said the fund should be three to four times the operating budget, ideally about $20 million.
"It helps when we can convince donors that were doing better and being fiscally responsible," said Bloom. ". . . As an organization, we may have made it difficult for them to write that check, because weve been far too busy putting out fires."
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