Beethoven, Brahms, Barber, Bartok and Shostakovich were favorites of one of the nation’s most accomplished young composers.
“Their music is marked with an intensity that expresses what it is to be human. There is great yearning, suffering, joy and happiness in their works that immediately grips me when I hear their music,” says Makiki resident Michael-Thomas Foumai. The 27-year-old is a brilliant young composer who takes solace in knowing the late composers faced personal struggles, as all people have, yet found escape in their craft. He has studied the lives, personal affairs and works of art of the most important figures in all of classical music.
“I have deep respect and admiration for how they were able to create great beauty in the face of pain and the joy of life,” he says.
He started composing at the tender age of 12, and is a member of the Roosevelt Class of 2005 — the same public institution that produced Bruno Mars and Yvonne Elliman. He earned a B.A. in music composition at University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2009, and a master’s and doctoral degrees at University of Michigan, where Madonna and James Earl Jones are among its prominent alumni. Of part-Samoan heritage, he’s the third child of a retired construction worker and an avid pianist, Seth and Suzanne Foumai.
Among the gifted composer’s honors — he is the recipient of Music Teachers National Association Distinguished Composer of the Year (Chicago), was awarded a Fromm Foundation Commission from Harvard University, given the Jacob Druckman Prize from the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado, and the American Prize in Orchestral Composition.
“Before I start composing, I do a lot of reading. I try to find story or a piece of artwork. I spend maybe a month or a couple of weeks just thinking about it or looking for something that would really grab me. Then, I find music material that speaks to me,” reveals the artist.
He has worked with some of the best musicians and performers of our time, including bringing his music to concerts with conductors Lorin Maazel at Castleton Festival, Robert Spano at Aspen Music Festival, David Alan Miller at American Music Festival, and George Manahan at American Composers Orchestra. Not to mention performances with symphonies in Albany, Portland, Aspen, Cabrillo and Milwaukee, and new music groups, such as Alarm Will Sound. He has learned from seasoned composers of this dispensation, including Bright Sheng, Michael Daugherty and Christopher Rouse, to name a few.
Music was his pre-college calling, when he performed as a violinist and developed into an accomplished artist — but he chose the life of a composer.
“Composing is a 24/7 job. I don’t need to be seated at a desk. I could be driving, taking a shower, cooking, eating, watching a movie and still be thinking about composing or mulling over a particular problem in a section of a piece I’m writing,” he explains. “I enjoy storytelling and being immersed in a plot or character and creating an experience.”
It’s an understatement to say Foumai has a creative mind and musical talent, but he credits his musical success to supportive teachers, family and friends who pushed him and fostered his passion: creating and composing beautiful music that pierces the soul.
He derived inspiration from Kawananakoa Middle School’s music director Daniel Mew, who made music enjoyable for the then-whiz kid.
“I also studied violin privately with Craig Young, who really has put me into shape,” says Foumai. “Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to technically perform some of the greatest music written out there.”
He adds that it would be impossible for him to even begin to understand music making — something that’s very important to composing in retrospect. Roosevelt orchestra teacher Darin Ujimori allowed Michael to explore conducting, arranging and programming music, and Roosevelt was where he gained a priceless education in developing the skills to lead and bring music together from the position of a teacher and conductor.
Lastly, Henry Miyamura, Hawaii Youth Symphony music director, served as his teacher, college mentor and dear friend. Miyamura played a large role in the artist’s development as the full-blown accomplished composer he is today.
Foumai’s recent works include the Hawaiian mythology triptych Children of God’s for Hawaii Youth Symphony, Beethoven-inspired Becoming Beethoven for Portland Symphony Orchestra and The Fantastic Voyage inspired by Hokule‘a for Royal Hawaiian Band.
“Music is meant to be shared, and I have the deepest satisfaction in sharing the great gifts that music has given to me with other aspiring performers and composers,” says Foumai.
On a personal note, I first met him in 2005 when I was mayor of Honolulu, after I attended the premiere of his orchestral piece, The Bicycle Ride, to honor him when he performed with Hawaii Youth Symphony. I was so moved by his music that I took a deep interest in his career and was a fan of his great works. Michael-Thomas Foumai is a rare find as a modern-day composer from Hawaii. We look forward to seeing what he scribbles on paper come alive and pull at the heart-strings of music enthusiasts. Many composers look toward their roots, and when he left Hawaii to study, Foumai gained a deeper appreciation for the very people who gave him a strong foundation and served as deepest influences in his music today.