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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Symphony's music director explains his move

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Honolulu Symphony music director Samuel Wong has mixed feelings about relinquishing his administrative duties with the orchestra, effective with the 2005-06 season, but he relishes the freedom to spend more time in New York with his family while re-establishing a career in medicine.

Samuel Wong

"I will do more guest conducting, in Hong Kong (through 2009) and in Europe, but stepping down doesn't mean I want to stop making music," said Wong, 42, when he was reached yesterday in Hong Kong where he is conducting for Garrick Ohlsson and Andre Watts. "I will be conducting (the Honolulu) orchestra through 2007."

Wong just completed his eighth season with the Honolulu Symphony. He will remain as the conductor laureate for the 2005-06 season and conduct at least six concerts over the next two seasons.

"It was time to move on," Wong said.

The decision enables him to trade one MD for another; he is an ophthalmologist with Harvard University credentials and he is eager to get involved in an Institute of Music and Healing that will tap humanitarian as well as musical missions, juggling his passion for his two careers.

"It's been a good run," said Wong of his tenure. "There's not much else to say right now. I think I've had a good decade here; we accomplished many things, gave a lot to the community, delivering consistent, inspiring concerts while struggling a lot financially and organizationally.

"When you stay a decade, it's always a surprise (when you move on). People tend to take you for granted. But I think a music director of an orchestra, for seven to 10 years, is the normal cycle."

Stephen Bloom, president of the Honolulu Symphony, told the orchestra at the season finale that Wong was leaving. Wong was not on hand. "The orchestra reacted with silence," said Bloom.

Wong returns for the orchestra's 2004-05 season starting in September, but won't have to deal with his administrative duties.

"I simply wanted to make music unencumbered by other considerations," he said. "I know I will be conducting at least three programs in '05-'06. ... "

According to Bloom, finding a replacement could take as much as two years and "his will be big shoes to fill."

"What we'll do is launch a full-on international search (possibly as soon as this week), but that's not to say that someone local could not apply," Bloom said.

What Wong's successor will have to do, said Bloom, is show a commitment to settling here and establishing a Hawai'i residency — something Wong had intended to do but never did while maintaining New York as his home. His musician wife, Hae-Young, and their two children, daughter Ariana, 7, and son Christopher, 3, live in The Big Apple.

"I think I'm a lifelong friend to Hawai'i," said Wong of his connections with the musical community here. "I've developed deep, meaningful friendships that will survive.

"But family considerations tipped the balance; I don't want to miss those years when my kids are growing up."

Wong said that in his role as music director of the orchestra, he established a handful of milestones, including a Hollywood Bowl debut in 1997, the addition of a Pop Series to the schedule, and the kickoff of an "East Meets West" series.

"I've reached out into the community, visiting hospitals, schools and nursing homes; we've established relationships with Alzheimer's and the Rotary; many things," he said.

But a cloud of financial woes, particularly in the past two or three years, has been a challenge he could never neglect; "we give 120 percent of effort but make do with thin resources," said Wong.

Like the musicians, he had to undergo an across-the-board 20 percent pay cut.

"In the face of that, I can't, in good conscience, look at my musicians in the eye at the end of the decade, and still be satisfied," he said. "There's no anger there; the marketplace isn't personal. That's just the way it had to be.

"There's too much of a will in the community to let the orchestra glide. I know the pillars in this community will never let the orchestra falter; but recruiting in the face of a 20 percent pay cut is daunting."

Reach Wayne Harada at wharada@honoluluadvertiser.com, 525-8067 or fax 525-8055.