Dr. Michael-Thomas Foumai (b. 1987, Honolulu, Hawai'i) is the Director of Artistic Engagement and the first Composer in Residence for the Hawai'i Symphony Orchestra. His music, described as "vibrant and cinematic" (New York Times) and "full of color, drama, and emotion" (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), encompasses an extensive catalog of symphonic music, spanning commercial arranging to the avant-garde, and focuses on the culture of his Hawaiʻi home. In 2019, he was selected into the 17th class of the Pacific Century Fellows, comprised of 35 outstanding and talented young leaders to represent the individual and professional diversity of Hawaiʻi, including government, small-and-large businesses, the arts, and non-profit and corporate enterprises. In addition, he was presented with the Mayor of Honolulu Certificate of Recognition and a proclamation from the State Senate of Hawaiʻi.
Upcoming concerts in the 23-24 season include the world premiere of Children of Gods under Dane Lam and the Hawaiʻi Symphony, and the premiere of From the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame and O Kuʻu Āina Aloha (Of My Beloved Land) with Sarah Hicks and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Recent performances include arrangements of Florence Price's music, including A Song for Solo Piano and Orchestra, after Florence Price's Fantasie negre No.1 for pianist Michelle Cann, and orchestrations of Night, and Song to the Dark Virgin, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the Rock My Soul series curated by soprano Julia Bullock and conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya. The 2022-23 season brought the world premiere of Defending Kalo by Lucia Lin (violin) and Charles Overton (harp), Breath Water Spirit for An-Lin Bardin (cello) and Naomi Niskala (piano), and Living Pono, a harp concerto for Charles Overton and the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by José-Luis Novo. Other highlights include performances with John Devlin leading the Louisville Orchestra, Sarasota Orchestra, Alexandria Symphony, and Hans Graf with the Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra.
Recent projects have focused on issues and stories facing the people of Hawaiʻi. Raise Hawaiki, a large scale choral-symphony based on the Polynesian voyaging canoe Hōkūleʻa was commissioned by the Wallace, Elizabeth, and Isabella Wong Family Foundation to celebrate the return of Hōkūleʻa from her three-year worldwide voyage Mālama Honua. Setting the words of Nainoa Thompson, Eddie Aikau, and Mau Piailug, the historic world premiere brought together an unprecedented collaboration between ten institutions encompassing performance, voyaging, and higher learning: The Polynesian Voyaging Society, The Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra, Oʻahu Choral Society, the choirs from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, Hawaiʻi Youth Opera Chorus, Kapiʻolani Community College, University of Hawaiʻi West Oʻahu, community choirs, ʻŌiwi TV, IONA Contemporary Dance Theatre, the University of Hawaiʻi Foundation, hula choreographed by Lauren Kanoelani Chang Williams and visual projections and artwork by Herbert Kāne and voyager Hana Yoshihata.
His work on the collaborative educational multi-media production Symphony of the Hawaiian Birds was developed in partnership with the University of Hawaiʻi, Bishop Museum, and the Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra. The project brought six local composers together with animators and environmentalists to bring music and environmental curriculum to schoolchildren across the state, cultivating awareness of extinct and endangered Hawaiian species of birds—Dr. Foumai composed music for the final movement. Symphony of the Hawaiʻi Forests followed in 2023.
Continuing his work and relationship with the Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra, Dr. Foumai arranged several works for string orchestra for the organization's Sounds of Resilience concert series, live-streamed from the historic Hawaiʻi Theatre. From May to August 2021, the HSO performed seven works and new arrangements of Hawaiian mele as part of the inaugural 2021 Sheraton Starlight Series at the Waikīkī Shell. Featuring a total of 30 performances of Dr. Foumai's works, the series is, as HSO's executive director Dave Moss calls, "a Foumai Festival." Joining forces with the orchestra were conductors Rei Hotoda, Lidiya Yankovskaya, Sarah Hicks, and JoAnn Falletta. In addition, Dr. Foumai's Sheraton Starlight Series Program Notes framed each concert's program, giving audiences a composer's perspective to listening and visualizing narrative while illuminating hidden musical messages in the score and music. Continuing with the 2021-22 Halekulani Masterwork Series, Dr. Foumaiʻs program notes accompanied the " New Perspectives season." As part of the series, his reimagining of the National (Star-Spangled Banner) and State (Hawaiʻi Ponoʻī) anthems was premiered under Scott Yoo.
As an arranger, he has composed for guest artists, including Yo-Yo Ma, Grammy Award nominees Robert Cazimero, Amy Hānaialiʻi, Raiatea Helm, The Mākaha Sons, Pōmaikaʻi Lyman, baritone Leon Williams, Makana Cameron, Jeff Peterson, Anuhea Jenkins, Kimie Miner, Kalaʻe Camarillo, Izik, Keilana Mokulehua, and Liam Moleta with the Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra, Jake Shimabukuro with the Hawaii Youth Symphony, the late Iwalani Kahalewai with the Royal Hawaiian Band and bass soloist Soloman Howard with the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra. In addition, he arranged music for the Hawai'i Symphony's Holiday Spectacular Broadcast on Hawaiʻi News Now, a reimagining of Hawaiʻi Calls™, the Hapa Symphony Series, Ted Yoder's dulcimer album Shadowlight, Mana Music Hawaiʻi with Tomasina and Tavana, and Irmgard Aluli's For a Peaceful World for the Hawaiʻi Youth Opera Chorus.
His work in the commercial field includes arrangements for Hawaiian Telcom and various film-scoring projects. The collaboration with filmmaker Jinyoung Won led Dr. Foumai to compose music for the Songs of Love documentary series featuring stories of Korean immigrants in Hawaiʻi's history. Together with Keola Beamer, Dr. Foumai arranged music for the third episode focusing on Kalaupapa and featured violinists Chee-Yun Kim and Iggy Jang, along with Beamer.
As the Director of Artistic Engagement for the HSO, Dr. Foumai designed and hosted the premiere season of the education series Beyond the Music, evening programs tailored to connect audiences with the orchestral repertoire through history and musical discoveries. Performances included the full orchestra narrated by Dr. Foumai and conducted by guest conductors. The first season shows voyaged into multi-cultural treasures of Dvorak's Ninth Symphony in "From the New World" with Dane Lam, uncovered a secret love affair with the Brahms symphonies in "Beloved Brahms" with Earl Lee, and explored the marriage of poetry and music in Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night" with Mei-Ann Chen.
In 2018, the University of Hawaiʻi Foundation commissioned Kaunānā to thank and celebrate donors who raised the endowment for programs, research, and student and faculty activities to $1 billion. The work was developed to highlight "Made in Hawaiʻi." The project brought together alumni and faculty of the University of Hawaiʻi music department to perform the work, with faculty and students from Honolulu Community College's MELE Program to record the work in studio.
With deep ties to the Hawaiʻi Youth Symphony, Dr. Foumai's work for the state's premier youth orchestra organization began when he served as the associate concertmaster. His close relationship with former directors Henry Miyamura and John Devlin has led to the creation of a combined 17 new works for orchestra, band, and chamber ensembles, including Liu-Si, a large-scale choral-concerto-symphony based on the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Composed for Hawaii Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Iggy Jang, the four-movement work brought together the youth orchestra, University Symphony, and Honolulu Symphony Chorus with support from the MetLife Creative Connections Grant. Dr. Foumai's relationship with the youth symphony continues today. Working closely with director Joseph Stepec and executive director Randy Wong, Elysium was commissioned and premiered in the fall of 2019. Based on themes from the Beethoven symphonies, the work celebrates the organization's 55th anniversary and Beethoven's 250th anniversary by bringing together the symphony, beginning strings, and ukelele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro.
Performance highlights include Concerto Grosso with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Overture on Themes from the Songbook of Queen Liliʻuokalani with Lina Gonzales-Granados and the National Symphony Orchestra, The Spider Thread with George Manahan and the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Music from the Castle of Heaven with Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall, Lady Dark (Orig: Three Scenes from the Hell Screen) with Francesco Lecce Chong and the Milwaukee Symphony, The Light-Bringer with Matthew Kraemer and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and with James Feddeck and the Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra, and Nataraja with David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony.
As winner of the American Young Composers Competition, Dr. Foumai was commissioned to compose Becoming Beethoven for Robert Moody and the Portland Symphony Orchestra to celebrate the institution's 90th season in 2014. His relationship with the orchestra would continue with a commission in 2019 for The Telling Rooms, developed in partnership with the PSO and Portland-based youth writing center Telling Room. Premiered under Eckart Preu, the work set the words of three young writers from Maine.
Large-scale works have been performed by the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra, Sioux City Symphony, Idaho Falls Symphony, New England Philharmonic, Utah Symphony, University of Michigan Orchestras and Bands, Royal Hawaiian Band, and various university orchestras across the country. Dr. Foumai's music has been presented at festivals and venues, including Carnegie Hall, The Julliard School, Curtis Institute of Music, the Bard Conservatory, National Sawdust, Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Hawaiʻi International Film Festival, and the Thailand International Composition Festival. His solo and chamber works have been performed in the US, Japan, South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Indonesia, and Europe by various artists, including Alarm Will Sound, the Orchestra of St. Luke's, Music in the American Wild, Juventas New Music Ensemble, the Dolce Suono Trio, Music from Copland House, the Chicago Ensemble, Ebb and Flow Ensemble, Jake Shimabukuro, violinists Johnny Gandelsman, Yuki Numata-Resnick, Patrick Yim, Ignace Jang, cellist Joshua Roman, and gayageum virtuoso Ji Young Yi.
Dr. Foumai gained national recognition in 2004 with the ASCAP Morton Gould Award for his orchestral work The Bicycle Ride. Shortly after, he was selected into a cohort of international composers collaborating with composer David Rosenboom and writer Martine Bellen to compose the multi-media opera Ah! A Counterpoint of Tolerance. Inspired by perspectives on multiculturalism and religion, the work was a two-year project developed at Idyllwild Arts. It premiered at the Walt Disney Concert Hall RedCat in collaboration with the California Institute of the Arts in 2009.
Honors for his music have included a Fromm Foundation Grant from Harvard University for Manookian Murals commissioned by the Dolce Suono Trio, the Music Teachers National Association Distinguished Composer of the Year Award, Sioux City Symphony Composer of the Year, the Jacob Druckman Prize from the Aspen Music Festival, three BMI composer awards, ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award, The American Prize, the Arthur and Mary Platsis Prize for graduate work relating to Greek legacy, commissions from the Composers Conference at Wellesley College and the Michigans Teachers Association, grants from Meet The Composer, the American Music Center, New Music USA, Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan and the Intimacy of Creativity Fellowship from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. In 2015, composer Derek Bermel selected him as the inaugural Kaplan Fellow in Composition at the Bowdoin International Music Festival. In addition, he was chosen by the late Maestro Lorin Maazel as the winner of the Castleton Festival's Composers Competition in 2014.
In addition to composing, Dr. Foumai has produced several web-based documentary series, trailers, and teasers to serve performing organizations, crafted to inform and invest the viewership leading to a performance for a richer and enhanced concert experience. The nine-part series Becoming Beethoven was developed as a companion series to trace the creative process from the beginning to the end. The Telling Rooms, a three-part series, explored how the written word informed the creation of melody, harmony, rhythm, and form, and Raising Hawaiki, a 4-part series with the composer, author Sam Low, and master navigator Nainoa Thompson, explored the legacy of Polynesian voyaging and how it translated into musical form. Other projects in media production have included video/image design for concert projection for Raise Hawaiki and Eggshell Lighting Company, in enhanced concert performances for Music of Queen Liliʻuokalani presented by the Queen Liliʻuokalani Trust and the All Nippon Airways Honolulu Music Week.
His teachers have included Bright Sheng, Michael Daugherty, Paul Schoenfield, Erik Santos, Byron Yasui, Takeo Kudo, Thomas Osborne, Donald Reid Womack, and Peter Askim. He has had additional studies and mentorship from Christopher Rouse, Augusta Read Thomas, Syd Hodkinson, and George Tsontakis at the Aspen Music Festival and School, Derek Bermel at Copland House Cultivate and Bowdoin International Music Festival, Steven Stucky, Melinda Wagner, David Felder, and Robert Beaser at the EarShot and ACO Underwood New Music Readings, Kevin Puts at the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute, Tristan Murail at the Shanghai New Music Week, Behzad Ranjibaran at the Cabrillo Composers and Conductors Workshop, Joan Tower at the Albany Symphony Composer to Center Stage, Gabriela Lena Frank at the GLF Creative Academy, and with Steve Mackey, Anna Clyne, Roger Reynolds, Chen Yi, and Zhou Long at various festivals and conferences.
Dr. Foumai also serves at the University of Hawaiʻi West Oʻahu Academy for Creative Media faculty. In addition, he has lectured at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa in the theory and composition area. Dr. Foumai holds multiple degrees in music composition from the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa (BM) and the University of Michigan (MM,DMA).
His music has been recorded by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, Ian O'Sullivan, Patrick Yim, Sonic Apricity, the Royal Hawaiian Band, and The Brass Project on various labels.
Dr. Michael-Thomas Foumai (b. 1987, Honolulu, Hawai'i) is the Director of Artistic Engagement and the first Composer in Residence for the Hawai'i Symphony Orchestra (HSO). His music, described as "vibrant and cinematic" (New York Times) and "full of color, drama, and emotion" (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), encompasses an extensive catalog of symphonic music, spanning commercial arranging to the avant-garde, and focuses on the culture of his Hawaiʻi home. Dr. Foumai's orchestral works have been conducted and performed by Yannick Nézet-Séguin with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Lidiya Yankovskaya with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Lina Gonzalez-Granados with the National Symphony Orchestra, Sarah Hicks and the Seattle Symphony, George Manahan with the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Osmo Vänskä with the Minnesota Orchestra, and with Dane Lam, Mei-Ann Chen, JoAnn Falleta, Hans Graf, Earl Lee, Rei Hotoda, Anthony Parnther, Andrew Grams, and Scott Yoo with the Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra. In addition, Dr. Foumai designs and hosts the HSO education series Beyond the Music; he is the program notes annotator for the HSO Masterworks series and is the principal HSO arranger for guest artists who have included Yo-Yo Ma, Jake Shimabukuro, Raiatea Helm, Amy Hānaialiʻi, and Robert Cazimero. His honors include a Fromm Foundation Grant from Harvard University, the MTNA Distinguished Composer of the Year Award, the Jacob Druckman Prize from the Aspen Music Festival, and three BMI composer awards. Dr. Foumai is currently on faculty at the University of Hawaiʻi West Oʻahu and holds multiple degrees in music composition from the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa (BM) and the University of Michigan (MM, DMA).
Photo: R.R. Jones