A soft, sweeping sound wafts delicately through the room as violin strings slowly crescendo, joined along the way by a full symphony of brass, woodwinds and percussion. Together they swell toward a powerful finale of harmony and musical passion.
The conductor is a blur of movement, coaxing forth notes with flailing limbs, completely engrossed as the orchestra nears the piece’s conclusion. But suddenly he taps his baton on the stand and the music stops. “Second violin and violas, it needs to be more like, ‘phwom’ instead of ‘bwom’ there,” he says, trying to convey the nuance of what he’s looking for. The players nod. A rustle of adjusted stands and music sheets gives way to alertness as the conductor raises his baton for a re-do. The group strikes up again and this time makes it all the way to the end of the overture, leaving the room in hushed silence for just a moment, savoring the beauty of the lingering notes. And then 18-year-old high school senior Kahler Suzuki puts down the baton and cedes direction of the Hawaii Youth Symphony back to its principal conductor, Henry Miyamura.
The Hawaii Youth Symphony (HYS) is divided into four string ensembles and three full orchestras, along with the Music in the Clubhouse program for kids in the Boys and Girls Club of Honolulu. Here, ten-year-old Linda Lam warms up.
“Kahler is a good example of how kids can grow and really thrive in the Youth Symphony program,” Miyamura says of the young cellist, who takes an occasional turn at conducting the group so Miyamura can listen from alternate vantage points in the practice room. “But every one of the kids is important.”
This year marks the fifftieth anniversary of the Hawaii Youth Symphony (HYS). For half a century the symphony has been transforming eager, fresh-faced kids into skilled musicians. Many alumni have gone on to become professional musicians, music educators, conductors and composers. Many others have found their niche in business, art, science and other professions. But no matter what they do they bring with them the grounding in teamwork, self-discipline and self-improvement they gained in their time playing with Hawaii Youth Symphony. “Wherever our participants wind up, they’re likely to be dutiful, productive members of their community who strive to make positive contributions,” says Randy Wong, the Youth Symphony’s executive director. “Music is the core. It helps us understand, establish, and respect multiple points of view. It helps us multitask, collaborate and work together. These are qualities the students take with them into life.”
One thing making Hawaii Youth Symphony unique, says Wong, is the large number of alumni who come back to the organization to volunteer, conduct, coach or contribute in other ways. Wong himself is a product of the symphony. He started playing bass with the symphony in third grade and continued playing all the way through high school, before heading to the renowned New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and ultimately Harvard University for a master’s degree in education with a focus on the arts.
For a half century, HYS has transformed eager, fresh-faced kids into skilled musicians. Above, members of the String Orchestra Ensemble perform at the 50th Anniversary Spring Community Concert at Kaimuki High School.
Hawai‘i’s music community is filled with gifted Hawaii Youth Symphony alumni. The celebrated composer Michael-Thomas Foumai can be counted among them; the child of a struggling single mom, Foumai, a violin player, worked his way up to Hawaii Youth Symphony’s top orchestra. Along the way he discovered an aptitude—and love—for composing music. Maestro Miyamura encouraged Foumai and provided opportunities to have his original work performed by the group. Foumai went on to earn a PhD in composition and become one of the most acclaimed young classical composers of this generation, winning the 2013 American Prize for Orchestral Composition and many other awards, commissions and accolades. Today he’s back in the Islands, teaching music composition and theory at the University of Hawai‘i.
Another illustrious alumni is the widely acclaimed jazz drummer Abe Lagrimas Jr., once a Hawaii Youth Symphony percussionist. Like many former members with successful careers in music, he comes back on occasion to perform at fundraisers. A former Youth Symphony oboist, Keith Sakamoto, is now the president and CEO of Hawaiian Host chocolate company. A former trumpeter, Alan Arizumi, is now the vice chair of First Hawaiian Bank. Lisa Wong and Lynn Tanoue, former violinists, became physicians and are now on the faculties at Harvard and Yale medical schools respectively. Wong authored Scales to Scalpels, a book that explores the healing power of music and discusses the ties between music and medicine. The list of successful and productive Hawaii Youth Symphony alumni goes on and on.
Impromptu jam sessions, like the one pictured above, break out backstage at the Kaimuki High School auditorium before the Spring Community Concert. More than six hundred young musicians are enrolled in the Hawaii Youth Symphony's programs.
More than six hundred kids are enrolled in Hawaii Youth Symphony programs at any one time. There are seven different groups, including four string ensembles and three full orchestras. Youth Symphony I, which is the most advanced and has about one hundred students, is as large as a major metropolitan philharmonic orchestra. Often the kids are playing at levels of complexity that can compare with professional orchestras. Hawai‘i has no professional touring symphony, but once a year Youth Symphony I tours one of the neighbor islands. These performances are the only opportunity many communities in the state have for live symphonic music.
As a statewide organization, Hawaii Youth Symphony also includes kids from the Neighbor Islands, who fly to Honolulu for practice. Kisa Urudomo, an 18-year-old violinist from Maui, rehearses with Youth Symphony I three times a month. “It can be a huge challenge to balance school and social activities, because most of my Sundays are taken up with being at the airport and rehearsal,” Urudomo says. “Sometimes it’s hard to finish homework. But it’s worth it. It feels like we’re all part of one family. And when the group gets closer in friendship the music becomes more exciting to play.”
Urudomo has been playing violin for thirteen years, the last four with Youth Symphony I. “We first saw the Youth Symphony perform on Maui when Kisa was about seven or eight years old,” says her mother Lylas Urudomo. “It was a dream for her to get into an orchestra. It’s given her something to work toward and look forward to. It takes a lot of sacrifice on her part, but it’s something she loves.” Urudomo’s hard work seems to be paying off—she’s earned a scholarship to the prestigious Eastman School of Music in New York. She plans to major in violin performance and music education.
An estimated twenty thousand kids have played in the Hawaii Youth Symphony over the last fifty years. Ten-year-old clarinet player Bao Nguyen, above, is one of them.
Another aspect of the Hawaii Youth Symphony is its Music in the Clubhouse program, semi-weekly music classes for kids ages seven and up at the Boys and Girls Club of Honolulu. Geared toward kids in schools that don’t have music classes, the program covers fundamentals such as reading music, singing and playing ‘ukulele and recorder. No prior musical experience is required to enter the Music in the Club-house program, and Hawaii Youth Symphony provides all of the instruments, maintenance and instruction. “We have Wayne Fanning of Niu Valley Middle School, one of the best middle school band directors in the state, teaching beginning band twice a week at the Boys and Girls Club,” says Randy Wong.
The program can give kids enough experience playing an instrument to eventually join their middle school or high school band. And sometimes the program serves as a feeder for the Hawaii Youth Symphony’s orchestras. Twelve-year-old identical twins Micaela and Valentina Diaz-Paez made the transition from the Music in the Clubhouse program into the string orchestras, and they are now nearing entry to the symphony orchestras. “It’s been really fun so far because I get to meet new friends and experience new types of music,” says Valentina. “I love that we get to do concerts and make other people happy by playing our music,” adds her sister. Their parents, who are from South America and speak English as a second language, are thrilled to see the difference music seems to be making in the girls’ social and academic lives. “They’ve been in HYS programs since they were eight years old,” explains their mother Noelia Paez. “It’s been great for their personalities. They’ve developed self-esteem. They’re conﬁdent on many levels.”
On a warm afternoon in May, after much rehearsal, one of the biggest events of the year for the Youth Symphony kids arrives: The Hawaii Youth Symphony Aloha Concert 2015, which brings the organization’s fiftieth season to a close. Members of Youth Symphony I and Youth Symphony II dart around the crowded ballroom at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in black suits and gowns, getting ready for the big show. The room is an ocean of chatter except for the stage, where silent timpani and empty chairs hint at the performances to come. More than seven hundred people—friends, family, sponsors, donors, well-wishers and music lovers—have gathered for the event, which includes a banquet and concert capped by a ceremony to say goodbye to graduating seniors leaving the program. This is their final performance.
Youth Symphony I, the most advanced group of Hawai‘i Youth Symphony, has about one hundred members from twenty-six different schools. It's comparable in size to a major metropolitan philharmonic orchestra.
Youth Symphony II takes the stage first and fills the room with magnificent sounds from around the world: Japanese taiko drumming, powerful nineteenth-century European symphonies, contemporary Hawaiian pieces, a tribute to Louis Armstrong and Dixieland jazz. Hawaiian music legend Robert Cazimero, the evening’s special guest performer, joins the kids on-stage, adding vocal depth to the already massive tide of international compositions. It’s a spectacular show, and that’s just the opening act.
After intermission, the members of Youth Symphony I settle into their seats onstage. A symphonic super-group, these one hundred and one students from twenty-six schools around the state represent the very best of Hawai‘i’s young musicians. With eyes closed, it would be hard to distinguish Youth Symphony I from a major metropolitan orchestra. Senior Brent Ramos from Moanalua High School shines in the solo violin cadenza from Fiddler on the Roof, a medley arranged by John Williams, who originally penned the complex solo part for violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman. Pulling off works that seem impossible for kids aged 14 to 18, the group’s selections for the evening continue to delight music aficionados who love symphonic music. Brahms. Saint-Saēns. More from Cazimero.
“One of the most important things kids learn in our program is the value of continuous improvement,” says principal conductor Henry Miyamura. “I’m always asking for more from them, to take them beyond where they thought they could go.”
The evening concludes with another Williams composition, the aptly titled “Summon the Heroes.” But first maestro Miyamura has a surprise for the audience, a surprise even for the group itself: a previously unannounced guest conductor, who at 18 might have found his calling. Kahler Suzuki puts down his cello and steps up to the podium. It is his moment, but not only his. For the graduating seniors, this will be the last time they play together —and some of them have spent a full ten years in the program. But every member of the group, no matter when they joined, has come a long way.
“One of the most important things kids learn in our program is the value of continuous improvement,” says Miyamura, who has been directing the youth symphony for thirty-one of its fifty years. “They can apply this to their playing but also to other aspects of their lives. I’m always asking for more from them, to take them beyond where they thought they could go—and then to go beyond beyond.” HH
Story by Larry Lieberman. Photos by Logan Mock-Bunting