Text by Greta Beigel
Images by Marie Eriel Hobro
This is the plea of conductor, writer, and Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra artistic advisor JoAnn Falletta in her poem “To the audience”: “Look at us as we play / We need witnesses to our music / We need witnesses to our lives / To tell us that they matter.”
Falletta, who is in her eighth season as the symphony’s artistic advisor and has been at the helm of the Buffalo Philharmonic since 1999, spends about three weeks in Hawai‘i, overseeing all auditions and hires, selecting repertory, and engaging soloists and conductors.
“We are very careful to get maximum return for our artistic budget,” says executive director Jonathan Parrish. “Sometimes young artists starting out require less of an investment; other times, we have some established fabulous artists. It is all about balance. So is choosing repertory, balancing the familiar and known with something new.”
With an annual operating budget of about $4.6 million, Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra schedules 11 classical Halekulani Masterworks programs each season and offers diverse performances such as Holiday Pops, the Music of John Denver, and ever-popular Harry Potter nights. Sunday afternoon classics attract up to 1,400 patrons.
Yet while series subscriptions are increasing, Saturday night ticket stubs reveal 50 percent less occupancy than the popular Sunday performances. Major challenges also loom. In November 2020, the 22-acre Neil S. Blaisdell Center, where the symphony usually performs, is closing for redevelopment, a project expected to take about three years. During this time, the symphony will use alternative venues. “Some people may follow us wherever we are, others might not,” Parrish says. “Who knows, we could build new audiences.”
Marketing director Heather Arias de Cordoba remains ready to sign up new subscribers. At symphony concerts, she commands a table in the lobby stacked with colorful T-shirts she designed and registers assorted customer complaints, compliments, and inquiries. “We are doing patron outreach as we can,” she says.
With the advent of Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra’s 2019-2020 concert season, Palm ventured behind the scenes to meet devotees responsible for making it all happen.
Ignace “Iggy” Jang
One hour before the conductor is due to give the downbeat to the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra, a far more casual collaboration begins to unfold on stage.
Concertmaster Ignace “Iggy” Jang, eschewing his customary tux and tails in favor of jeans and a shirt, emerges from the wings to assume his secondary role emceeing the orchestra’s pre-concert conversations. As is the custom, visiting soloist and conductor join him for the question-and-answer session.
Welcome to the Iggy half-hour, a time to tap the zeitgeist, probe the artist psyche, and with luck, resolve any angst du jour. Always self-deprecating, Jang cheerfully mocks his own occasional mispronunciation, even malapropism, while engaging his guests. “I try not to be too scripted,” he says. “I don’t consider myself a professional host. I have always considered myself an introvert, be it at home or with family or friends. For a long time, public speaking terrified me.”
His breakthrough came when he became involved in educational programs, largely with the Hawaii Youth Symphony, and felt compelled to converse with parents and audiences. Now, as happy host, he enjoys helping emerging young artists articulate a personal vision.
“Our show is a mixture of enlightenment, instruction, and entertainment,” Jang concludes. “We do not take ourselves too seriously.”
In 2013, Jonathan Parrish, a French horn player with substantial administrative experience in the arts was appointed executive director of the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra. In the ensuing years, he has emerged as a familiar figure, welcoming audiences to the concert hall from the stage.
Parrish is departing the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra in December to take up a similar post as executive director of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra but he has guided the orchestra in the start of its 2019-2020 season.
Credited with initiating the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra’s successful Music that Rocks series, Parrish says he’s banking on the lure of yet another creation, Films in Concert, to draw more audience members. In this new series, the orchestra will accompany screen favorites. This season, it is a Harry Potter venture.
“Films we choose have to have wide and broad appeal,” Parris says. He laughs. “They also must have a good score.”
Heather Arias de Cordoba
As director of marketing for the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra, Heather Arias de Cordoba is a virtual polymath. She creates radio and television advertisements, helps design season brochures and flyers, and puts together silent auction packages.
A maven of social media, de Cordoba handles all online postings, and she boasts of attracting more than 10,000 followers to the orchestra’s Facebook page. She also thrills that a $500 investment in announcing the upcoming Harry Potter concerts translated into 1,900 tickets sold.
Mostly, her position mandates fostering brand awareness, such as the catchphrase “music builds community.” “Our musicians perform in Chamber Music Hawaii, Hawaii Opera Theatre, also Ballet Hawaii,” de Cordoba says. “The symphony draws many entities together and gives them life. There is a big community here, with the [symphony] at the center of it all.”
When Merle Bratlie first visited Hawai‘i in 1990, he attended a performance by the Honolulu Symphony. “I was so impressed, especially with intermission,” says Bratlie, who for 25 years worked in artist services for the Houston Symphony. “When the side doors opened, and all the ladies in mu‘umu‘u walked out onto the lawns, I thought, ‘Oh, how beautiful.’ In Houston, if you go outside the hall into the heat, it means you are probably leaving.”
Four years ago, Bratlie was hired as general manager of the resurrected Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra. While Bratlie participates in season planning, his focus includes meet-and-greets at the airport, where he presents artists with welcome packages from the Symphony’s board that include chocolates, personal schedules, invites, and, most valued of all, orchestral scores supplied by the music librarian for immediate use. Bratlie whisks classical musicians directly to rehearsal or accommodations at Halekulani; he drops pop and rock performers off at Sheraton Waikiki.
“A long time ago, I realized I have the easy job. I don’t have to go out on stage and perform,” Bratlie says. “I am so heartened by what this organization can do. The orchestra has such an important place in this community. We are not just a beach community. We have a lot of people who have musical and intellectual pursuits.”
“When people come to a concert, they are so excited,” says longtime Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra Associates member Andrea Snyder. “Our job is to help them have a personal connection to the orchestra.”
Dues-paying associates members distribute flyers, greet concertgoers at an outreach table, and generally assist the marketing team. The group also sets ups booths at senior expos and farmer’s markets and assists with an annual Thanksgiving dinner for musicians and families. Benefits of membership may include free concert tickets as well as invites to rehearsals and receptions.
After lunching at an open-air restaurant at Halekulani, more than 30 associates, including Snyder, amble along a path to a nearby conference room at the hotel. They have come to be congratulated for getting the word out about the orchestra’s classical, pop, and rock offerings. Mostly, volunteers anticipate a cheery talk about upcoming programs from JoAnn Falletta.
Snyder, who volunteers for numerous organizations, traces her yen for service to a childhood spent pitching in at the family business, a small department store in Dover, Delaware. “I feel as though the [Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra] is a kind of family concern,” Snyder says. “I love music, and it is so rewarding to share something I am passionate about. With the associates, there is a chance to feel connected to the community. There is a nice camaraderie.”
Prior to his appointment as chairman of Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra’s board of directors, businessman and philanthropist Paul Kosasa had rarely attended an orchestral concert. But these days, Kosasa, who is president and CEO of ABC Stores, rates a constant presence at Blaisdell Concert Hall, schmoozing with patrons in the lobby or draping a lei over some unsuspecting, delighted artist at the grand finale. “My role is as a working chair,” Kosasa says. “I go to performances to greet visiting artists and to thank the musicians. I think my presence helps morale.”
Kosasa, who oversees 76 ABC stores worldwide, also devotes considerable energy to fundraising. “In Hawai‘i, resources are finite,” he says. “It’s hard for all performing arts organizations.”
Following the bankruptcy and dissolution of the Honolulu Symphony, Kosasa’s family foundation purchased all the orchestra’s assets at a public auction for about $230,000, including the music library. The collection, which includes “rare and older Hawaiian scores,” remains housed in the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra’s offices in Kaimukī, which are provided rent-free courtesy of Kosasa.
“Musicians tell me that thanks to the orchestra, they can live here,” he says. “They know they have a concert season, and they like it.”