Dr. Michael-Thomas Foumai, Music and Creative Media Lecturer at the University of Hawai‘i–West O‘ahu, has two new, additional roles — opportunities he calls a “dream come true.”
Foumai was recently named Director of Artistic Engagement and the first Composer in Residence for Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra (HSO), which aims to broaden community access to musical experiences through in-person performances and digital broadcasts featuring gifted musicians, stellar guest artists, and renowned conductors.
“I perform two primary roles,” Foumai said. “The first is to compose and arrange the music for the HapaSymphony series.”
The performances in the series join the symphony orchestra with celebrated local and Hawaiian artists and world-renowned conductors.
“This kind of collaboration brings a remarkable symphonic journey only found in Hawai‘i,” Foumai said. “When our orchestra performs with artists, the music for all the orchestra’s instruments needs to be composed, and that’s my job.”
Foumai’s second role is artistic outreach to the community. For each work on a concert, he provides the audience with comprehensive program notes — the who, what, where, and why, but also how the music connects to people in Hawai‘i.
“In addition, I design and host our newly launched education series Beyond the Music,” he said. “These performances provide keiki to kupuna a ‘Magic School Bus’ approach to exploring how composers put together their great symphonies and the kaona (hidden messages) they contain.”
The series is presented as a comfortable, casual evening concert at the Moanalua Performing Arts Center, a curiosity incubator perfect for the family or for those who want to know more about symphonic music, Foumai said.
A deep relationship with the symphony
Foumai was excited to learn about his new roles with HSO.
“I was electrified!” Foumai said. “I’ve had a deep relationship with our symphony since 2002, when I was 13 years old and first attended an HSO concert.”
The program featured music from Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” recalled Foumai, who added that he was “gob-smacked” to hear the music live with the orchestra.
“Then in 2007, as a student at UH Mānoa, it was my music on the HSO music stands, and that was a life-changing experience that confirmed for me that I could do this, I can be a orchestra composer, composing wasn’t just for the people who lived 300 years ago,” he said. “My roots are in this orchestra; there’s no other like it. So I’m thrilled to join the HSO team; it’s a dream come true.”
According to the HSO website, Foumai was selected in 2019 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 Hawai‘i, including government, small-and-large businesses, the arts, and non-profit and corporate enterprises.
In 2021, Foumai was featured in HSO’s Sheraton Starlight Series, showcasing a festival of Foumai’s music throughout that summer at the Waikīkī Shell. In a first for a Hawai‘i composer, Foumai had a total of seven of his orchestral works and new arrangements of mele by Queen Lili‘uokalani performed by the symphony.
A wonderful development for our community
Dr. Jon Magnussen, Professor of Music with the Humanities Division at UH West O‘ahu, said it is “a wonderful development for our community” that Foumai has been appointed Composer in Residence for HSO.
“Michael is a keiki o ka ‘āina, a product of the UH System, and now he’s giving back by teaching our Music and Creative Media students at UH West O‘ahu,” Magnussen said. “Symphonic music of our time is alive and well, and it’s heartening that Michael will be leading the Symphony’s efforts to share the excitement of the music of our time with our community.”
Foumai shared what he hopes to bring to the Hawai‘i Symphony, which he referred to as the “ultimate storyteller.”
“It’s a time machine and a connector that empowers the cross-cultural conversations and partnerships our islands foster,” he said. “The stories of Hawai‘i and Polynesia, the Pacific, the stories of us, must be continuously told and represented.”
Foumai continued, “Music is a gateway, a compass to learn from our ancestors, a welcoming invitation to reflect who we are now, and a portal to explore pathways forward as a community in Hawai‘i, as a nation, and as the human race. Cultivating our home-grown composers/artists and engaging our community with the highest level of symphonic music and Pacific-focused programs is the legacy I hope to bring in my role at the symphony and to our ‘ohana.”