Symphony's business plan updated
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
The leaders of the bankrupt Honolulu Symphony told Hawai'i's oldest Rotary Club yesterday that the symphony's business model doesn't work, and pitched a new plan aimed at cutting performances and expenses in half while trying to preserve salaries for unionized musicians.
"We have to stop doing business as usual," Majken Mechling, the symphony's new executive director, told about 50 Rotarians at the Japanese Cultural Center. "We're using a 100-year-old model ... (that) wasn't much of a business plan."
Symphony organizers canceled this year's season after years of scheduling concerts without enough money to pay for them — and then relying on "angel donors" to bail them out, Mechling said.
As the symphony's money problems pointed the organization toward Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Mechling said, an antagonistic relationship grew worse between the symphony's board and its musicians, and that donors continued to be underappreciated.
The new business model submitted to U.S. Bankruptcy Court would cut the symphony's annual costs from $8 million a year to $3 million to $4 million, said Kimberly Frank, chairwoman of the Honolulu Symphony Society, the organization that employs the symphony's musicians.
Much of the savings would come from cutting the 40-performance calendar in half and not paying musicians for the lost dates, Frank said.
But the 63 members of the Musicians Association of Hawaii who comprise "the core" of the symphony could make up for their lost income through a new system, Mechling said.
Symphony officials would do a better job of reaching out to schools and communities to create performances and teaching opportunities and give the unionized musicians the "right of first refusal" for those supplemental events to make up for the loss of the traditional concert performances, Mechling said.
Despite full houses at the Neal Blaisdell Concert Hall, the symphony actually has not sold out a concert in at least a decade, Mechling said.
Many of the seats are filled with people who were given free tickets, or who bought tickets at highly reduced prices.
"I've often thought about the guy who paid full price and wondered what he thought about the guy who paid half price," Mechling said.
So the symphony needs to look at smaller venues for some performances, as well as a pricing system that will attract more paying customers.
More performances at the community and school levels also would generate interest in the symphony among new and younger audiences, who could become long-term, paying customers, Mechling said.
Symphony officials have submitted their reorganization plan to federal bankruptcy Judge Robert Faris, and Mechling expects the union to give Faris its own reorganization plan.
The bankruptcy process also allows the symphony to renegotiate its collective bargaining agreement with the musicians union, she said.
The symphony also is planning a Fourth of July concert at the Waikīkī Shell and hopes to hear today whether any of its 63 union musicians will perform, Frank said.
No ticket prices have been determined for the concert, she said, but the symphony hopes to raise $100,000 from the performance and make it an annual event.
Several Rotarians — many of them symphony fans — were aware that the symphony comes up short each year. But they were startled by the scope of the symphony's long-term budget problems.
While they appreciated a new approach, several questioned whether some of the ideas are practical — such as making up for musicians' lost income through school and community concerts.
"I'm just not sure it's practical," Reese Liggett said.
Bob Sumpf was surprised at how the symphony operated from year to year.
"It wasn't much of a business plan — incur expenses and look for the revenue later," Sumpf said. "They finally came to the realization that you have to pay the bills."
Asked about yesterday's comments by Mechling and Frank, a representative of the musicians union said, "I don't think their vision is inspiring."
"A new plan for the symphony needs to be preceeded by a vision of a vibrant professional orchestra that not only serves the entire state but represents and promotes Hawai'i and is something Hawai'i can be proud of," said Jonathan Parrish, vice chairman of the union's musicians' committee.
"When you deliver an exciting product to the community and you become relevant to the community and you establish a reputation for being well-managed, you earn the trust of donors and you inspire support and you inspire people to partake. I don't think anybody right now is inspired," Parrish said.