The lingering effects of the economic downturn continue to take a toll on orchestras across the country. Enough, in fact, to forget that one of the first organizations to feel the heat was the Honolulu Symphony, which filed for bankruptcy in December 2010 after 110 years in existence. Since then, a Symphony Exploratory Committee acquired assets of the defunct Honolulu Symphony—including 70 musical instruments and some 2,700 scores—ratified a new contract with musicians, and called on the public to bid Aloha! to the new Hawaii Symphony. The $6 million organization will pay 64 full-time musicians $30,000 per year for 30 weeks for the first two years, with an increase to $31,250 in the third year. SymphonyNOW caught up with Buffalo Philharmonic and Virginia Symphony Music Director JoAnn Falletta, who has also been serving an advisory role with the organization, to hear first-hand how things have been shaping up on our southernmost state.
Ian VanderMeulen: How did you get involved with the symphony revival in Honolulu?
JoAnn Falletta: I’ve had a long relationship with the Honolulu Symphony because I was music advisor several years ago and before that had been guest conducting them pretty often. I was devastated—I think a lot of people were—to hear that they had declared bankruptcy and were no longer playing. Steven Monder, who used to be the executive director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and I sort of became partners in helping the Symphony Exploratory Committee that was interested in bringing an orchestra back to Honolulu. I can’t thank Steve enough for what he’s done. He’s been spending hours, weeks, months of his time, going back and forth between Honolulu and his home in Cincinnati. Over the course of this last year the Committee, which is a very powerful group of people in Honolulu, were able to put together the resources to start the symphony again. They formed a new symphony called the Hawaii Symphony to express that the symphony wants to be much more visible to the entire state. Hawaii is a unique place in that it’s far from everything and it needs an orchestra to serve its complete population. It’s also a very diverse population—a beautiful mix of cultures.
VanderMeulen: And now you’re hoping to be on stage again by October?
Falletta: That’s what we’re planning, that the symphony will begin playing in October. Steve is actually in Hawaii right now ironing out dates for the fall. Neither of us have tried to put a season together as quickly as we are now. But we’re going to do it. Things are happening in the symphony world that have never happened before, so we have to be flexible—not the same old way anymore! There is great interest in the public in bringing them back. I think they really missed not having the Honolulu Symphony. Without the symphony the opera would be threatened, the ballet would be threatened, they wouldn’t have professional music teachers or chamber musicians. So Hawaii is probably the state that, in a way, has the most need for its own resident orchestra, because it simply can’t go outside and get musicians.
VanderMeulen: How will the Hawaii Symphony function differently than the Honolulu Symphony? Will you perform in more venues or as smaller groups?
Falletta: We’re going to be much more flexible. The musicians have been extraordinarily open to new ideas, for instance broadcasting our concerts into movie theaters on other islands, so that people even in the faraway islands can see the Hawaii Symphony. And of course to follow that up with actual full-orchestra visits to neighboring islands. We’re thinking about playing festivals in different locations, reflecting as much as possible the diversity of the culture there. But it will take a lot of commitment on our part to do that. That’s not so say we’re not going to perform Beethoven and Brahms—of course we are—but integrate into that the idea of exploring other cultures.
VanderMeulen: Are there still practical issues to be sorted out? There was some question about the availability of Blaisdell Hall, where the Honolulu Symphony used to perform.
Falletta: Right, and I think Blaisdell will always be the centerpiece for us. Right now we’re working with the hall and they’re trying to help us because, as you can imagine, we’re asking now, in the summer, for dates starting in the October when they’ve already been booked! So they’ve been trying to help us, shuffling things around, and we’re exploring some other options. We’re leaving ourselves open. And in a way, it’s very refreshing! This is not business as usual—and it’s great, it’s wonderful! We’re free to imagine all the things we could do that we never really thought of before. And I’m sure for several seasons it’s going to be a work progress. I hope it’s always a work in progress where we’re always exploring new ideas, what can we do differently, how can we reach more people, how can we celebrate what Hawaii is, which is a vast melting pot of beautiful cultures. It’s really very inspiring to be in the middle of that.