Dr. Michael-Thomas Foumai (b. 1987, Honolulu, Hawai‘i) is a composer of contemporary concert music and educator. His music has been described as “vibrant and cinematic” (New York Times) and “full of color, drama, and emotion” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). A prolific composer of symphonic music, his work focuses on storytelling and the history, people and 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, non-profit and corporate enterprises. Through his works, he was was awarded the Mayor of Honolulu Certificate of Recognition and the recognition by proclamation from the State Senate of Hawaiʻi.
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 world-wide 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 a partnership with the University of Hawaiʻi, Bishop Museum and the Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra. The project brought six local composers together with animators and environmentalist to bring musical and environmental curriculum to school children across the state; cultivating awareness of extinct and endangered Hawaiian species of birds. Dr. Foumai composed music for the final movement that saw the artwork of children, selected by contest, projected above the orchestra during live performance.
In 2018, the University of Hawaiʻi Foundation commissioned Kaunānā to thank and celebrate donors who had collectively 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 would bring 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 severed 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 in a work supported through 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 will premiere in the fall of 2019. A work based on themes from the Beethoven symphonies, it celebrates the organizations 55th anniversary and Beethoven’s 250th anniversary by bringing together the beginning strings and ukulele programs with the top orchestra in concert.
Performance highlights include the premieres of 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, 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 in 2014, Dr. Foumai was commissioned to compose Becoming Beethoven for Robert Moody and the Portland Symphony Orchestra to celebrate the institutions 90th season. His relationship with the orchestra would continue with a commission in 2019 for The Telling Rooms, a work 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 who wrote profound prose on the role of color in their daily lives.
Large scale works have been performed by the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra, Sioux City Symphony, Idaho Falls Symphony, New England Philharmonic, University of Michigan Orchestras and Bands, Royal Hawaiian Band and various university orchestras across the country. Far reaching, his 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 Dolce Suono Trio, Music from Copland House, the Chicago Ensemble, Ebb and Flow Ensemble, violinists Johnny Gandelsman, Yuki Numata-Resnick, Patrick Yim, Ignace Jang, cellist Joshua Roman and gayageum virtuoso Ji Young Yi.
Dr. Foumai first gained national recognition in 2004 with the ASCAP Morton Gould Award for his orchestral work The Bicycle Ride and shortly after in 2008, he was selected into a cohort of international composers collaborating with composer David Rosenboom and writer Martine Bellen in the creation of a multi-media opera called Ah! A Counterpoint of Tolerance. The work, inspired by perspectives on multiculturalism and religion, was a two-year project developed at Idyllwild Arts and premiered at the Walt Disney Concert Hall RedCat in collaboration with the California Institute of the Arts in 2009.
Since then, 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, and was
chosen by the late Maestro Lorin Maazel as 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 commissioning and performing organizations in offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the creative process through social media. These video series were crafted to inform and invest the viewership leading up 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 for Eggshell Lighting Company for the Music of Queen Liliʻuokalani presented by the Queen Liliʻuokalani Trust.
As an arranger, Dr. Foumai has composed for guest artists, including Raiatea Helm and the Hawaii Youth Symphony, Iwalani Kahalewai and the Royal Hawaiian Band and bass soloist Soloman Howard and the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra. As an educator, he currently serves on the faculty of 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 teachers have included composers Bright Sheng, Michael Daugherty, Paul Schoenfield, Erik Santos, Syd Hodkinson, 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 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.
His music has been recorded by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, Ian O’Sullivan, Patrick Yim, the Royal Hawaiian Band and The Brass Project on various labels.
Photo: R.R. Jones