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A Heartbeat Left In The Old Girl Yet

Though they haven’t played since October 2009 and the symphony filed for Chapter 7 liquidation in December 2010, the Honolulu Symphony musicians saw a new opportunity to perform together emerge today as tickets went on sale for the first performances of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra.

The new organization has embraced an ambitious plan with their first masterworks concert occurring barely a month from now on March 4. A Pops season will be announced soon.

I spoke to Jonathan Parrish who headed the previous symphony’s musicians’ union orchestra committee at a meeting on Monday and he told me there was some scurrying going on to offer all the tenured musicians their places back. Many had moved away and might not return. Fewer had than I thought and some of those who did, have returned to town to play for the opera.

JoAnn Falletta, Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Virginia Symphony had been assisting the revival efforts as artistic adviser and programmed this first abbreviated season.

Steven Monder, former president of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, had also been active in trying to see the orchestra revived. Though it doesn’t say on the website or explicitly in the press release, an article printed this last November reported he “had already signed on as president.”

Obviously, there will be a “Wait and See” period since there had been a number of years where the former organization was constantly teetering on the brink.

It may have been purely by necessity, but I thought it shrewd to announce the revival during the opera season and have the opera ticket office handle their sales. Even if there isn’t a large overlap in the audiences, the opera patrons are watching the symphony musicians play and the opportunity to purchase tickets to the symphony is close at hand.

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Talk About Your Org Before Someone Else Does

Last week Americans for the Arts held a Private Sector salon on ARTSblog where they discussed where the interests of the arts and business intersected. Much of the discussion was very interesting, but one entry by Margy Waller stuck with me for a few days. Part of it was the timeliness of her subject. She cited the recent controversy at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) about a video that included ants crawling on a crucifix. She quoted a commenter on the NPR story about the controversy calling art the leisure pursuit of the elite.

It immediately made me wonder if the commenter was aware that admission at the NPG, like most of the Smithsonian museums, is free and that the gallery contains very accessible works of historical significance from portraits of Presidents, First Ladies, Founding Fathers and Cornwallis’ surrender to Washington at the end of the Revolutionary War to Stephen Colbert. I am not sure what more someone needs to feel that museum has something to offer them rather than deciding it is only in the purview of others. Even with the exposure provided by people like Stephen Colbert and millions of people wandering through the NPG for free every year, people are unaware of the experience the museum offers. The museums really only get national attention when there is controversy and at that point, no one is interviewing the person talking about the benefits of the arts or the thousands of other works hanging in the galleries.

This weekend when the Honolulu Symphony decided to ask a judge to allow them to dissolve rather than undergo Chapter 11 reorganization, (a request which as of this writing, the judge has granted), the 140+ comments people made on the initial newspaper article revealed just how uninformed and unaware about the symphony’s operations people were. I am not referring to people making spiteful comments about how elitist classical music is who weren’t making any effort to learn. There were plenty of them. But there were others conducting conversations in which people were learning about the business aspects of the symphony for the first time.

A commenter with the handle 1SWBP wrote:

“Shamonu–mahalo for the explanation. That makes more sense now. I appreciate your taking the time. My empathy now runs much more deeper and the union stuff makes perfect sense. I guess I never realized how ‘large’ our symphony was. I do regret not being able to get out more and enjoy them more often.”

What made Margy Waller’s post most inspiring however was a video of Cincinnati mayor Mark Mallory talking about the economic benefits the arts have brought to his city in his State of the City address last year. It reinforces the idea that you have to talk about what you bring to the table, and talk about it, talk about it some more and then get others to talk about it when people get sick of hearing you. A little depressing though that there are only 113 views so pass it on if you like it.

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Measuring Sports With Arts’ Yardstick

For a long time there has been a sort antagonistic undercurrent between the arts and sports, more on the part of the arts than sports. Personally, I think it can be traced back to high school where artistic and athletic pursuits both competed for after school program funding, but that is just my theory. (Borne out by those humiliating wedgies and locker stuffings the jocks carried out on the drama kids. Not me, mind you. Just something I have heard.)

But you see signs of it all the time. Arts organizations will pull out stats that show more people spent more money on their events than on sports. Folks in the arts bemoan the loss of reviewers in newspapers while the sport section expands.

Things seem to be shifting a little bit though. There was the Minnesota law that combines arts support with funding for outdoor sport hunting and fishing.

I came across a less beneficial pairing of art and sport today in an editorial about increasing student activities fees to support college sports.

“On the revenue side, even the most popular sports are perennial money losers, weighed down by staggering travel costs and erratic attendance. Just like the Honolulu Symphony, everybody loves the idea of a collegiate men’s basketball team, but not enough people turn out to support it.”

It is tough to know where to begin. The paper does the symphony no favors by reminding people of it’s woes. There is also the idea that only things that make money are worth having around. That is an argument the whole non-profit funding system exists to refute in some degree. In this case, the situation is not the same because the core purpose of the not for profit university is theoretically to educate, not necessarily to support ancillary athletic programs. I will leave it at that so as not to become embroiled in debates about the value of athletics to learning and the monies collegiate programs bring to schools.

There has always been a bit of an assumption that sports were getting all the funding to the detriment of the arts, especially in high schools where the arts are cut but sports often aren’t. But it is starting to look like colleges and universities are no longer willing to support sports teams any longer. In the last year, both Hofstra and Northeastern Universities shutdown their football teams (though 13 new football programs were announced as being in development) because the schools were no longer willing to make their funding a priority.

My first impulse was to follow this observation with a “there but for the grace of God…” statement noting that if the arts’ traditional opposite is threatened, wither stands the future of the arts? But that plays back into the whole concept that the arts are of lesser value than sports. Honestly, I can’t see that arts programs at schools are in any more danger of being cut than they usually are.

If anything, I would say the standards long applied to the arts are being applied in other areas. It isn’t just sports. In education as a whole, the intrinsic value of learning is being displaced by the what degree pursuits are of practical use and financial value upon graduation. This isn’t a matter of what majors student are choosing to pursue, it is also a discussion educational institutions and government officials are having over what degrees are worth offering.

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Goin’ Mobile With The Orchestra

I was driving home a week ago when I heard an interview on the radio with a couple talking about founding the Orchestra of the Hawaiian Islands. (MP3 download) Now given that the Honolulu Symphony has just declared bankruptcy after years of financial struggles, this elicited a “say what?” moment for me.

It turns out this is a program of American Music Festivals, a once Chicago and now I guess Hawaii based organization. The organization was founded in Chicago and created project based ensembles to perform cultural exchange concerts in Russia and Eastern Europe in addition to the Chicago area. Apparently this was accomplished by contracting freelance Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians.

American Music Festivals is run by a husband and wife, artistic director and executive director team. When she was offered a job at a school on the Big Island of Hawaii, they moved their operations to that state. Their intention is to utilize Honolulu Symphony musicians to increase the size of their projects from their current 12 piece string ensemble up to full symphony size.

They aren’t looking to replace the Honolulu Symphony at all. If the symphony is revitalized, they envision themselves complementing its outreach efforts. Much of their interest is in local and international outreach. Their plan is to institute cultural exchanges with Japan and perhaps other Asian countries. They hope to bring Hawaiian music to Japan and add the music to their existing exchanges in Eastern Europe.

What interested me about the interview was the concept of how technology, transportation and communications allows endeavors like this to be so mobile. Where they live seems to have little bearing on whether they can accomplish their goals.

Of course, part of this is due to the fact their organization has no fixed orchestra. When asked whether he might one day want to establish an orchestra with regular salaried members, Artistic Director Philip Simmons said, “Why would I want to do that though? Why would I want to create all those problems for myself?” The organization focuses on project driven events which provides them with the flexibility to do different things with a variety of groups locally and worldwide.

Simmons suggests that maybe the old models and formulas for a concert experience aren’t working anymore. He doesn’t say his structure is necessarily the new way, but offers it as an alternative.

Given that the Honolulu Symphony has talked about operating with a much reduced ensemble, perhaps a collaboration between them and the Orchestra of the Hawaiian Islands (OHI) can bring enough funding together to assemble the numbers the Honolulu Symphony had performing for them in the past. They wouldn’t necessarily be competing for the same funding pot. The OHI is serving an area of the state the Honolulu Symphony once did but really hasn’t had the funding to do so in recent past. OHI may be able to gain funding from people interested in supporting local performances.

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