Star-Bulletin Features

Neil McKay listens as the Hawaii Youth Symphony perform his composition during a rehearsal at the University of Hawaii Music Department.

Youth Symphony pulls
together students’ talents

By Gary C.W. Chun

In the bandroom at the University of Hawaii music complex, Henry Miyamura is trying to hold the attention of 88 teenagers and get them to work together. But he wouldn't have it any other way. Not only does the conductor and music director for the Hawaii Youth Symphony gain the respect and attention of his young charges, but he persuades and inspires them to play sophisticated music that belies their age.

At a rehearsal for Sunday's annual spring concert, longtime composer Neil McKay heard, for the first time, a piece he wrote exclusively for the orchestra entitled "E Kui Lima (Joining Hands)." He describes the piece as having "a first section that is light and lively, a second one slower and romantic, where the soloists can really emote and the last section, just let it rip!"

A retiree and former 22-year University of Hawaii music professor, the Canadian-born kamaaina has, by his count, written about 100 pieces of music over the years, including works for the Hawaii Youth Symphony and the Honolulu Symphony.

While Miyamura works on the orchestra's articulation in Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagñol," which will open Sunday's concert, McKay works with his piece's soloists in a separate classroom.

As he listens and softly comments on the work of 17-year-old French horn player Erica Chenoweth from Alaska; violinist Ryan Dote, an Iolani senior who's the orchestra's concertmaster; and pianist Randi Ozaki. Then Asa Nagakura arrives with her mother, straight from the airport after a red-eye flight from Japan. The studious Nagakura catches up before everyone goes downstairs to rejoin the orchestra.

The Hawaii Youth Symphony rehearses at the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus for its concert Sunday night at the Blaisdell Concert Hall.

"I didn't have to tone it down at all," McKay said, pleased with what he heard. "I felt that I couldn't write anything too difficult that they couldn't handle."

McKay follows the playing of his piece on a written score placed on an unused kettle drum while Miyamura conducts the entire group. After getting over initial nervousness, playing before teenagers they've just met, the guests' playing becomes more confident, generating spontaneous applause from the orchestra.

Miyamura tells McKay "'Joining Hands' is the perfect title for this piece."

"I'm thrilled," McKay says afterward. "Those kids are so good, one of the best youth orchestras in the country."

THIS IS ALL part of Miyamura's pursuit of "a unique program for the orchestra." Sunday's program includes three challenging pieces. In addition to the two tonal pieces "Capriccio Espagñol" and "E Kui Lima," the orchestra will play Takeo Kudo's "Let Freedom Ring" with master taiko drummer Kenny Endo. The rhythmic concerto premiered with the Honolulu Symphony in January 1999.

Inspired by the Japanese-American internment during World War II, Miyamura says "it's a difficult piece -- at times, it sounds a little dissonant and there are complex changes in meter and mood. All of this gives meaning to their struggle, what with the counterpoints and so many powerful statements."

State-funded since 1964, the Hawaii Youth Symphony forges on in spite of recent cutbacks from the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts and other monies slow in coming as the budget works its way through the Legislature and the governor's office.

"The orchestra's 50-50 public and private high school students," Miyamura said, "Mainly from Punahou, Iolani, Moanalua, a smattering of home-schooled students, some from University Lab School and one from Hawaii Prep Academy on the Big Island." (Students have hailed from Kauai and Maui as well.)

The program's reputation has grown over its 18-year history. Miyamura said that "many private string teachers and school band leaders help alert us to musicians they consider of the caliber we're looking for."

Students who join find they are really enrolled in a school for life, in which they learn responsibility, team work and efficiency, Miyamura said.

"Playing in the youth symphony orchestras, students can do something with the more serious side of music, namely expression, and not just getting the notes 'right' like some computer. Later, when they put down their instruments and become mothers and fathers themselves, when they see their own children playing music, they'll know how fulfilling that was through their own experience.

"This is my passion -- and while I feel it, it's hard to articulate it verbally. I want the students to feel the mellowness of tone, the warmth, the energy of music well-played. It's great when they're all playing on the same page, although sometimes I hear 20 different pages in rehearsal! But I appreciate the genuine honesty they bring to the music. And when they all hit that magic moment in their playing, I get chicken skin! It's thrilling when the whole thing ignites."

Hawaii Youth Symphony
Spring Concert

Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall

When: 4 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $10 general, $5 students and seniors (plus 50-cent ticket fee)

Call: 941-9706

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