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Something sure is broken in Honolulu

0 Robert Levine

I don’t know that this has ever happened in an orchestra bankruptcy before:

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Faris yesterday denied the Honolulu Symphony Society’s request to extend the period in which it alone could submit a plan for its reorganization.

The decision allows the symphony’s musicians and other parties to submit competing plans for the troubled organization’s emergence from bankruptcy. Until yesterday, the symphony society had the exclusive role of coming up with a reorganization plan.

In asking for an extension, the symphony society said it took a long time to complete a comprehensive organizational analysis, which is needed before it can come up with a reorganization plan.

The 258-page analysis, prepared by Honolulu Symphony Foundation chairman Mark Wong and his company, Data Collection Systems, was released last week and includes recommendations for drastically reducing the symphony’s concert schedule and overall budget. The Musicians’ Association of Hawai’i, Local 677 of the American Federation of Musicians, has criticized the report as flawed in its data collection and analysis and biased against the symphony musicians.

Faris characterized the situation as a “mutual firing squad,” and said his decision was intended to “keep the door as wide open as possible.”

Good for him. I suspect the plan looked a little fishy to him too.

I became curious after reading the entire article and found a copy of the plan. It’s a real stinker; to call it “flawed in its data collection and analysis and biased against the symphony musicians” understates the case. It’s the kind of document that doesn’t even try  to be consistent from one page to the next. To illustrate with just one example: page 12 contains doom and gloom about the trend in “States Arts Agency Legislative Appropriations” (and in fact the trend for state funding is far worse than it is for the more important metrics.) The report states that “state governments are important supporters of arts and culture, reaching many communities, organizations and artists.” So obviously it’s bad for the orchestra industry that “constant dollar state funding declined… by more than 37 percent from its peak in 2001.”

Except that, on page 17, the report states that “few American orchestras get major support from their state or local governments.” The report is just chock full of goodies like that.

What’s really broken in Honolulu not what the report describes as a “100-year-old business model” (which in itself is a ridiculous thing to claim and which is contradicted elsewhere in the report). What’s broken is a board that thinks that listing the outside employment of each individual member of the orchestra in an Appendix is not only appropriate, but proves that the massive pay cuts they’re proposing really won’t devastate the orchestra: “a 50% reduction in pay would result in a net 17.5% drop in total wages for an employee receiving 35% of pay from HSO.”

And where does the 34% come from? “The HSO season accounts for approximately 34% of a standard 2,000 hour work-year.”

No wonder the Honolulu Symphony has had one near-fatal labor dispute after another over most of its history. Not only does the board not have a clue; clearly they have no desire to have a clue.

I wish sometimes that we had the equivalent of baseball franchises. If a community ever deserved to have its orchestra taken away and moved to a new home because of abuse, it’s Honolulu.

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