Editor’s Note: This article uses the traditional spelling of Hawaiʻi, including the okina character, which Senza Sordino normally omits
On January 17, 2023, the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra officially announced that Chinese-Australian conductor Dane Lam would be appointed as Music Director Designate. While the appointment of a new Music Director is exciting for any orchestra to share, it is especially exciting and meaningful to the Musicians of the HSO, given our orchestra’s recent history. It is no secret that the HSO has had ups and downs in the last fifteen years—the most notable being Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2009.
Formerly known as the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra, the organization re-opened in 2012 as the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra, the new name chosen to be more inclusive of the other islands that make up the beautiful state of Hawai‘i. With a brand new board, then-Executive Director Jonathan Parrish and the musicians who chose to stay looked ahead toward an uncertain future, with gratitude that there would indeed be a forward path and the hope that the orchestra would grow into that future.
Slowly but surely, the orchestra took steps forward, first by bringing on JoAnn Falletta as Artistic Advisor. She would steer the ship over the next ten years as the orchestra began to rebuild. The group would find its footing by establishing a tradition of concerts throughout the season, such as Beethoven’s beloved Symphony No. 9 during the holidays. Next came a series of auditions to fill openings in the orchestra, as well as one-year appointments to cover any gaps that could not be auditioned right away.
Fast-forward to March 2020 as CEO Dave Moss began his tenure. Beginning a new post in the fine arts at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown presented a big challenge, but Moss was able to provide HSO and its musicians stability against all odds. The HSO was one of the first American orchestras to successfully be granted a federal PPP loan, which secured pay for the musicians.
Throughout the pandemic, Moss also built relationships with several additional corporate partners who added new sponsored series to our existing season. Some of those include the Halekulani Masterworks Series (sponsored by the Halekulani Hotel), the Sheraton Starlight series (HSO’s summer season, supported by the Sheraton Waikiki), and the Hapa Symphony Series, which features local Hawaiian artists and music.
The effects of COVID-19 were challenging for the music industry worldwide. But the Musicians of the HSO are no strangers to challenges, having experienced the bankruptcy of our institution. The government enacted extremely cautious state-wide mandates that changed often as the pandemic progressed, making it nearly impossible for the orchestra to be together in a predictable, conventional way. To overcome not being able to make music together in-person, HSO musicians rallied to establish an online presence by creating virtual recordings and sharing photos from their pandemic lives as a way of staying connected to the community. The added bonus of going virtual allowed for the inclusion of commuter musicians, which currently make up approximately 10% of the orchestra.
The Orchestra Committee worked tirelessly with management to continue discussions of the future after it was safe to re-open. It was never a question of “if,” but rather “when.” Most recently, the Orchestra Committee successfully negotiated and ratified a new agreement which guarantees increased pay and added weeks (increasing from eighteen to twenty-one) over the next four years. That, plus the addition of HSO’s first official Music Director in its eleven-year history, is one giant step toward solidifying legitimacy.
Originally from Brisbane, Australia, Dane Lam completed his formal school training at the University of Queensland with Gwyn Roberts and at the Juilliard School under James DePriest. He held an assistantship with Gianluigi Gelmetti; a fellowship at the Royal Northern College of Music with Sir Mark Leder, Clark Rundell, and Mark Heron; and an assistant conductor position at the Orchestre National de France. All of these eventually led him to his current post as the Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the Xi’an Symphony Orchestra. Lam made his American orchestra debut with HSO in May 2021, conducting two programs of varying repertoire: a Hapa Symphony series program called “Hawai‘i Calls”—a nod to the former radio show which broadcast traditional Hawaiian music directly from Waikiki Beach until 1975—and a Masterworks program called “Hungarian Rhapsodies” that featured a variety of different rhapsodic selections as well as Brahms’ Second Symphony.
Lam was subsequently invited back in October 2022 to conduct Dvořák Symphony 9, and the premiere of the First Symphony of Dai-Kyong Lee, a composer native to Hawai‘i. Lam’s chemistry with both the orchestra and audience was undeniable, ultimately leading to his appointment. Maestro Lam’s initial contract is set to run until 2027 and he will conduct his first official week in July 2023, during the Sheraton Starlight pops season.
It has been a long road of rebuilding to get to this point, and any orchestra that has endured similar strife can certainly vouch for the financial—but also emotional—duress a rebuild creates, with the uncertainty and the lack of stability being the most obvious of concerns. One unique trait that gives the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra so much strength is the ohana culture of the islands.
In Hawai‘i, “‘ohana” means “family” and stems from the idea of community and inclusion for all, not just blood relations. It is this special quality that has provided HSO’s musical ohana with the grit to push through struggles, and the desire to celebrate together in the joys of the orchestra’s success. Reporting from Hawai‘i: we are happy to say we are currently riding a wave of success, and looking forward to many years of music-making to come.
Many thanks to Music Librarian Kim Kiyabu and the musicians of the Music Director Search Committee for verifying the facts included in this article.