Sunday, 3 October 2010

Music in the land of the Lotus Eaters

Let me tell you about my recent trip to Hawaii. My daughter Dafna lives on the north shore of Oahu, the island where Honolulu is located. My wife and I spent a couple of weeks last month there, and I had a chance to play some chamber music with friends.

Hawaii is the land of the lotus eaters: it destroys all ambition. I think I could happily have stayed there another two or three or ten years, lying around on the beach, kayaking, biking, reading. Each morning is a struggle: should we do something productive - sightseeing, shopping, practicing - or just spend another day lolling about in the perfect sunshine, under the perfect rainbows, looking out over a perfect ocean? The rainbows, incidentally, are almost always around and always spectacular. As the trade winds dump their moisture over the inland mountains, the light prisms through in spectacular technicolor. There are full rainbows, and rainbows within rainbows; sometimes there is just a cloud over the ocean that dissolves into a fan of red, yellow, indigo and violet.

Here is a picture of our private beach - not actually private, but since there was rarely anyone else there, it was pretty much ours. A three-minute walk from Dafna's house. Here is a view from high into the mountains of Oahu.

Here is me on a hike.

You get the idea.

I called some friends I had met on my visit to Hawaii the previous year, and we played string quartets. I found these players through the ACMP directory. ACMP (Associated Chamber Music Players) is a boon to the travelling amateur musician; if you are not a member you should join immediately.  Among its other services, ACMP publishes an online directory of musicians around the world. Fly to New Delhi or Shanghai with your fiddle, and you will find eager partners to play with. It is the best way to get to know a new place.

The violist of our quartet was Louise Ripple. Louise, well into her 80's, was a friend of Helen Rice, the founder of ACMP, and was one of the first board members of the organization. I had heard many stories about Helen Rice, and Louise confirmed them. "She was an inspiration," said Louise. "I played with her when I was a student at Hunter, and afterwards. She was tremendously enthusiastic about chamber music. When she came to me with the idea of an organization for traveling musicians, and asked me to join the board, I couldn't refuse." Helen Rice died in 1980, but her spirit is still felt among the older ACMP members.

I also tried to hook up with some friends from the Honolulu Symphony, but none of them seemed to be around or answering the phone. No surprise - the symphony filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in August, and since it has mounted an increasingly ugly campaign against the musicians. In their latest ploy, symphony management announced that it had accepted the resignation of all 63 orchestra members, even though none of the members had ever tendered their resignations. This was after the management had offered the union an "increase" in base pay, which, after taking into account the drastically cutback season, would have meant an average pay cut of 90 percent.

It is, like all bankruptcies, a rancorous process. In my conversations with symphony members last year, they accused everyone, from the board, the management, the contributors and the city, of mismanagement and conniving. They have also accused each other of nepotism in hiring, sexual harassment, and bias against Hawaiian-trained musicians. "I hope the symphony musicians explained during their in school demonstrations to our Hawaiian Keiki that no matter how good they get they have little chance to none of getting a job in the Honolulu Symphony unless they somehow convince their teacher to marry or date them to the expense of their current mainland friend or relative," wrote one.
But, venom and mismanagement aside, the implosion of the Honolulu Symphony - "The oldest symphony orchestra west of the Rockies" according to its website - is a sign of the times. The symphony is really a holdover from the days when the Doles and the Whipples and the Hales held sway over the social, cultural and economic life of the islands. The symphony back then was a pillar of western civilization in a remote backwater. In the days of hiphop and slackstring guitar, it has become something of a dinosaur.

And I am definitely part of the problem. Because, as the huge budgets swallowed up by these institutions ($8 million for the HSO) become unrealistic, more and more audiences are turning to chamber music as a cultural alternative. For me, anyway, it is somehow more in tune with the times, and it is a lot cheaper as well.

1 comment:

  1. I was in NYC in the late '60s and had the great pleasure and privilege of playing quartets with Helen Rice in her magnificent apartment. My favourite story about her is her notion of Heaven: she is in her room reading when an angel comes to her with an urgent request: "Mozart has just completed his 256th string quartet, and we need a 2nd violin for a read-through."