Symphony, PBS: Worth The Cost?

Bob Jones
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Wednesday - March 10, 2005
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Does Honolulu need a fulltime symphony orchestra giving us Beethoven’s Ninth, Holst’s seven movements of the Planets or Brahm’s snorer, the Karlsruhe Symphony No.1?

Might local audiences fare as well with a University of Hawaii orchestra at Blaisdell Concert Hall for Earth Day with performers playing on recycled instruments, buckets and chairs?

Perhaps other nights giving us the seldom-offered composers Hendrik Andriessen, Sergei Taneyev, Norman dello Joio or Arthur Bliss.

And does America really need a PBS television that’s minimally watched and locally runs P.O.V. and similar good programs when most of us are in bed?

Can’t we get our non-situationcomedy fix on our own dimes from the History, Discovery and National Geographic channels?

This isn’t a sucker-punch at the Honolulu Symphony or Public TV. I’m just tossing out for discussion whether donors’ and taxpayers’ monies would better be spent on other social enterprises.

I’ll take hits for daring to ask, but in this town if I don’t, who will?

About the symphony.

There’s a reason an orchestra’s put in the pit during an opera. To be heard and not seen. You don’t have to watch a CD to enjoy the great music that comes from it.

We barely afford what we have in Honolulu.

Our symphony musicians are down to $30,345 base pay. Pensions have been reduced. We have one of the lowest-paid orchestras in America. The average base salary nationwide is about $58,000. Our orchestra’s size compares to Louisville, Ky., Nashville, Tenn., and Buffalo, N.Y., which have base salaries of about $35,000.

Weak economies have left many orchestras facing financial crunches, slow box-office sales, delayed ticket purchases, declines in subscriptions and fund-raising, and curtailed programs.

Even cultural magnets like New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Houston are in symphony-money trouble. Cleveland went $1.4 million in the red; San Jose $3 million and folded; Chicago $6 million.

Former Knight Foundation symphony-and-community researcher Penelope McPhee has said, “I would argue vehemently that a community doesn’t need an orchestra just for the sake of saying it has an orchestra. The mere existence of an orchestra in a community does not contribute to the community’s vitality. The more orchestras peel off 3 to 4 percent of an economically elite fraction of the community, the more they’ll be part of the problem instead of part of the solution.”

Might we be better off if that symphony donor money went straight into music programs in our schools?

Public television’s been going downhill for decades. It can’t figure out if it wants to be taxpayersupported, highbrow and unwatched, or if it should accept more advertising, dumb down the programming and compete for the farmers-inoveralls in the Red states. It either takes more ads or revises its programs to find sympathy from a conservative Congress.

Keep in mind that nobody was watching even when the money was flowing and PBS could program whatever it wanted.

Locally, you could set off a small nuke in Honolulu and probably not kill anyone who’s a nightly Hawaii Public Television watcher.

I haven’t written this to irritate anyone. Just to stimulate community discussion.

Sometimes we get on a track and when asked “why are we doing this?” we say, ”because we always have and it’s good for us.”

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