Thursday, March 22, 2001

ROBERT DEMELLO / 1934-2001

Isle percussionist was
generous educator


Star-Bulletin staff

LONGTIME HONOLULU Symphony percussionist, music educator and conductor Robert S. DeMello died March 2 from cancer. He was 66.

DeMello's tenure with the symphony spanned 50 years -- half of the time the symphony has been in existence -- the longest in Honolulu Symphony history.

Raised in downtown Honolulu, DeMello -- as a student at Central Intermediate School -- was encouraged by the wife of then-Honolulu Symphony Music Director George Barati to begin viola studies.

Shortly thereafter, he began to play viola with the symphony at the age of 14. When Barati was preparing a performance of "Belshazzar's Feast," an anvil player was needed, and DeMello, who had no formal percussion training, was chosen to play it on an old brake drum.

Gradually he began to learn to play the different percussion instruments and never left "the back of the orchestra."

As the symphony's schedule became more time-consuming during Barati's tenure, DeMello decided to devote full time to the orchestra.

In his half-century with the orchestra, he held the posts of principal and associate principal percussionist, head and assistant librarian, and personnel manager.

DeMello began his conducting career while still a student at McKinley High School. Then-band director Emma Lou Johnson appointed him as conductor during her illness, and he went on to conduct his first piece, "Der Freischutz." After graduating from high school, DeMello joined the Army and was stationed in France as an electronics specialist, a job that included repairing chapel organs on Army bases.

DeMello longed to be a band director, so he read up on conducting and pursued a degree in music education from the University of Hawaii.

Upon graduating he took positions with St. Louis High School and Kahuku High School.

Although a strong personality, DeMello always kept a nonchalant, humorous demeanor and was generous with his resources and time.

For 35 years he trained hundreds of Hawaii percussionists at his studio at Harry's Music Store.

He also volunteered his mentoring services at many local high and intermediate schools. For the past 19 years, he faithfully led the Oahu Civic Orchestra as its director and expanded its mission and presence in the community.

DeMello would often dress as Santa Claus during the holiday season and distribute his own purchased Christmas gifts to the disadvantaged in his family's neighborhood.

DeMello was known for two unique works for the Hawaii community.

The first-ever pidgin version of Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf," entitled "Peetah and da Wolf," was premiered by the Honolulu Symphony in 1971 and became a favorite in youth and community concerts.

DeMello also wrote an essential 427-page reference work on Portuguese immigration to Hawaii based on his extensive genealogical research trips to the Azores and Salt Lake City.

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