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By Steven Mark
March 13, 2011

Two concert grand pianos, expertly maintained and used by some of the greatest artists in the world. A harpsichord. A set of timpani that will boom you off your feet. A snare with flare. A set of sacred pahu drums. And a room full of sheet music, much of it the work of the islands’ top musicians, to keep all those instruments playing. These are among the thousands of items that, barring a last-minute court delay, will be up for sale Thursday as the assets of the bankrupt Honolulu Symphony go on the auction block. David Barkoff, director of sales for auction house Heritage Global Partners, said it represents a unique opportunity for his company and especially for potential buyers. “Nothing compares to having 110 years of history of rich tradition, entrenched in the community … and everything that a symphony represents, to be put for sale,” he said. “Somebody needs to really step up and realize what’s available and purchase this and ensure that this continues for the next 110-plus years.” For many the auction is also seen as a crucial turning point for the future of symphonic music in Hawaii. Many believe that if the items are sold to an out-of-state buyer, it could make it difficult for a local symphony to start anew. “It’s a very scary thing,” said James Moffitt, clarinetist and informal historian of the symphony. “You wouldn’t be able to replace this.”

A group of local business and civic leaders who hope to revive the symphony has offered $210,000 to buy the assets — $10,000 above the minimum bid set by Richard Yanagi, the trustee appointed to organize and oversee the liquidation. The bankruptcy court, however, will likely require the auction to proceed to see if anyone else bids higher, Yanagi said. Both Barkoff and Yanagi said others have expressed interest in buying the items in bulk, but most inquiries have been about individual lots. The court has the final word on the disposition of the assets. In setting the minimum bid, Yanagi consulted with auction companies, conducted Internet searches, considered the $750,000 appraisal filed in bankruptcy papers and studied a similar bankruptcy filing by the San Diego Symphony. Still, he is uncertain what will happen once the auction begins. “There are people who tell me I’m going to be lucky to get $200,000,” he said, while some “auction houses or other people have said I’m going to get $500,000 or $750,000.”
While the monetary value of the items can be determined only at auction, their cultural value can be assessed by the special attachment musicians have for them. Most say the symphony library, comprising 2,377 individual works, would be the greatest loss, since it includes not only the standard orchestra repertoire but symphonic arrangements by local artists. “Those are unique works of art that would not have existed without the Honolulu Symphony,” Moffitt said. Looking through a list of the compositions, he cited a number of memorable works. “I remember a great Kui Lee arrangement from Byron (Yasui, longtime symphony bassist),” he said. “It was very powerful to me, very moving. … It was very honest and real.” The musicians cited in the auction listings make up a veritable who’s who of local talent, from Don Ho to Jake Shimabukuro. More than 100 works were arranged by Matt Catingub, including songs for Rosemary Clooney’s final performance, which was recorded and received a Grammy nomination.

NA HOKU Hanohano winner Raiatea Helm said she has warm memories of performing Catingub’s arrangements for a Symphony Pops concert in 2007. “I can remember that night and how magical it was for me,” the singer said. “Sometimes during the performance, I got thrown off because it was so beautiful. That I will cherish because it was a dream of mine. “It’s really interesting when you take these Hawaiian standards that were usually done with a simple band, with a ukulele or piano, and do them with the symphony. It’s really an amazing sound,” Helm said. “It’s a much bigger challenge to sing with an orchestra.” Helm said the experience encouraged her to use different approaches in her singing, something she can call on when she performs standards with Catingub and the Las Vegas Philharmonic Orchestra in May. Catingub declined to comment for this story. Henry Kapono remembers performing “Sailing” during a 1980s appearance with the symphony. He said he was struck by the sound of an oboe used in a solo that partner Cecilio Rodriguez usually played on harmonica. “It sounded so different but it sounded so cool,” he said. “I know a lot of people noticed it and told me that.” “Performing with the symphony is a treat, it’s a luxury,” Kapono said. “They’re the best at what they do, and for them to read the charts and be able to support you and sound so great, it was a great feeling. It’s really a great orchestra — great sound, great people. It’s too bad … if they go away.”
The instruments, too, evoke strong feelings of attachment. To symphony percussionist Steve Dinion, an “irreplaceable loss” would be the departure of one of the most common of percussion instruments: the snare drum. “I’ve had percussionists come here and say they’ve never heard a snare drum sound like this,” he said. “The wood happens to be just right.” Dinion stands to lose the most if the percussion instruments go out of state. He did not own most of the instruments he performed on, as percussion instruments are too large, expensive and varied for an individual musician to buy and store. “These are instruments I’ve personally been using for almost 19 years,” he said. “It’s very emotionally difficult to think about what that means if they’re sold to somebody who takes them away.” Percussion instruments are unusual in that they are often uniquely tied to certain musical works. The symphony’s taxihorns, for example, were used in George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” while its set of gongs was played in Hawaii Opera Theatre’s performances of “Turandot.” If those are taken off island, that could preclude these works from being performed here again, Dinion said. THE SYMPHONY also had a collection of Hawaiian instruments, including a set of pahu drums specifically made for it in 1992. Two pianos, a Steinway and a Baldwin, are particularly valuable because they serve as the house pianos for Blaisdell Concert Hall. The Steinway was donated to the symphony by Mark Wong, president of the Honolulu Symphony Society, in tribute to Ellen Masaki, the longtime doyenne of local piano teachers.
A group of 12 people, among them concert pianist Misha Dichter, symphony conductor Sam Wong and arts patron Carolyn Berry, traveled to New York to select it, said Masaki’s daughter Nancy Masaki, a symphony cellist. The piano is signed by the musicians who performed during its 2003 inaugural season, among them classical pianist Andre Watts, jazz artist Billy Childs, and Ellen Masaki herself.
“Considering the history of the piano and everybody who was involved in purchasing it, we want to keep it here,” said John Fuhrmann, director of customer services at Blaisdell Concert Hall. Fuhrmann said the city is ready to buy the pianos if necessary. There is value even among the small instruments. Nicholas Zou, a former symphony violinist who runs the shop CK Violins on Ward Avenue, donated a child-sized violin in the mid-1990s for a display. He recalled it “had good tone.” “All they need is to change the strings and adjust the sound post, and it should be fine,” he said.
Most of the larger instruments have been kept backstage at the Blaisdell and have been used in recent Ballet Hawaii and Hawaii Opera Theatre performances. Other items, including the library, furniture, scrapbooks, tapes and electronic gear, occupy two rooms in a nearby office and storage building.

The rooms are chock-full of mementos marking historical milestones for the Honolulu Symphony. A poster for the 1989 season, for example, shows that local audiences that year had the opportunity to hear celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma; a youthful Joshua Bell, now arguably the most popular concert violinist in the world; the pioneering Taiwan-born violinist Cho-Liang Lin; and David Bar-Ilan, a concert pianist who later became a prominent government official for the state of Israel. The 1975 scrapbook contains the brochure for the Honolulu Pops season, which featured jazz pianist Erroll Garner and “Tonight Show” band leader Doc Severinson. Another page opens to a crayon-written letter from “Malia W.” saying she really liked the “boy who do played the peanow.”

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