Monday, November 9, 2009

Strapped for cash, Honolulu Symphony bows out

The Honolulu Symphony said it will file for bankruptcy protection and may lay off half of its musicians due to mounting debts, lower revenues and less than stellar fundraising.

The 109-year-old symphony, which bills itself as the oldest American orchestra west of the Rockies, said it will cancel all of its November and December concerts. In addition, the company made no guarantees that the rest of its 2009-10 season would go on.

In speaking to the Honolulu Advertiser, Majken Mechling, the symphony's executive director, said "We cannot spend money we do not have. We cannot continue with business as usual."

Honolulu Symphony is the latest in a string of high-profile bankruptcies to hit the Hawaiian economy.

According to the Honolulu Advertiser- over the past 18 months, the state's largest phone company, Hawaiian Telcom Inc., local retailer Hilo Hattie and Hawaii Medical Center have filed for bankruptcy reorganization.

Mechling said the symphony has accumulated a debt of more than $1 million and has struggled in recent years to meet its $4.1 million-a-year payroll.

The Honolulu Symphony is added to the list of Mainland symphonies — including those in San Antonio, Nashville, Colorado Springs, San Diego and Oakland — that have filed for bankruptcy protection over the past 20 years.

Some, like Oakland and San Diego, filed for bankruptcy liquidation but made successful comebacks years later thanks to economic rebound.

But without an economic rebound in sight, Honolulu Symphony is faced with cutting up to half of the symphony's musicians. In recent days, all but six of the symphony's 22 administrative staff have been let go.

The bankruptcy caps a tumultuous two years for the symphony and its employees.

Steve Dinion, chairman of the musicians orchestra committee, told the Advertiser that the musicians were devastated by Friday's announcement.

Dinion, the symphony's timpanist, said musicians have continued to perform for the symphony during the past two years despite going "months and months without paychecks." This has lead to high turnover in the ranks and understandably low morale.

In addition, Health Care Reform couldn't come soon enough for these musicians. About half of them recently received notification that their health insurance coverage will be terminated.

But Peter Shaindlin, the chairman of Honolulu Symphony's board remains optimistic. He told the Honolulu Advertiser "The Honolulu Symphony Orchestra has achieved a legacy that is priceless and one that can be conceivably rekindled with the combined willingness of community, board and musicians."

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