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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, December 19, 2009

Honolulu Symphony files for bankruptcy, plans to downsize

By Rick Daysog
Advertiser Staff Writer

More than a month after announcing plans to seek bankruptcy protection, the Honolulu Symphony made it official: It filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in federal court yesterday.

The 109-year-old symphony, which bills itself as the oldest American orchestra west of the Rockies, said it needs to enter bankruptcy to cut its debt and reduce its payroll by as much as half.

"It's an unfortunate day but a necessary one for the organization," said Majken Mechling, the symphony's executive director.

"For us to continue with business as usual does not bode well for our musicians and the community."

In its filing yesterday, the symphony listed assets of $100,000 to $500,000 and debts of $1 million to $10 million to 200 to 1,000 creditors.

Mechling said that the Honolulu Symphony Foundation is owed roughly $750,000 for advancing funds used to cover operating costs.

Amounts owed to ticket buyers seeking refunds was not immediately available, she said.

The symphony plans to file more detailed financial information with the bankruptcy court in the coming weeks.

Last month, the symphony announced plans to file for reorganization and canceled all of its November and December concerts, putting its 64 full-time orchestra members out of work.

The nonprofit organization also terminated all but three of its 22 administrative workers.

In recent years, the symphony has struggled to meet its $4.1 million annual payroll. Musicians went several months this year without regular paychecks, resulting in high turnover.

David Farmer, attorney for the Musicians Association of Hawaii, which represents the symphony's musicians, had no immediate comment yesterday.

In the past, the union has opposed plans to reduce the size of the orchestra, saying a smaller symphony, such as those used for Symphony Pops concerts, don't generate enough revenue and tend to have high production costs.

Mechling said the organization has little choice but to downsize. For the past 20 years, the symphony has operated with a $2 million deficit, which was not feasible, she said.

The Honolulu Symphony, which was founded in 1900, joins a host of Mainland symphonies including those in San Antonio, Nashville, Colorado Springs, San Diego and Oakland that have filed for bankruptcy during the past two decades.

Some, like Oakland and San Diego, filed for Chapter 7 liquidation but were resurrected years later thanks to an economic rebound and the largesse of wealthy benefactors.

"The organization is hoping that we can become stronger and more sustainable once we're on the other side" of the bankruptcy, Mechling said.