dozens of musicians in action on a stage

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa music composition students are required to compose several original pieces spanning different genres, including orchestral works. Having a live orchestra perform those works is an integral part of the learning experience, however, some students do not get to hear their creations played by live musicians, much less a professional orchestra.

In late June 2021, four UH Mānoa students and one Leeward Community College student were selected by their professors to receive a valuable learning opportunity of having the world-renowned Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra (HSO) play their pieces and give their feedback.

The moment the ensemble began playing, it truly felt like magic.

Justin Uyehara, a spring 2021 UH Mānoa bachelor of music graduate and incoming master of music student, composed “Yard,” a piece dedicated to his late dog, Ehu. “Yard” portrays the time that Ehu spent playing in the backyard, the pace of the music mimicking that of a clock, indicating the years gone by.

“For me, working with the HSO was incredible,” Uyehara said. “This was the first orchestral work that I had ever done, so of course I was quite nervous, and definitely unsure how the music on paper was going to translate into actual performance. But the moment the ensemble began playing, it truly felt like magic.”

Professor Thomas Osborne conducted the HSO and Associate Professor Takuma Itoh helped to organize the valuable workshop on June 29–30.

“It’s a real pleasure to work with such a world-class orchestra,” Osborne said. “Our students put a great deal of effort and care into their compositions, and the HSO musicians responded in kind by bringing their full energy to these new pieces.”

Itoh added, “Our music department and the HSO has always had a strong relationship, but we are so appreciative that they included student composer orchestra readings as a part of their return. What a thrill it is for our students to come back from a year and a half of virtual concerts to suddenly be able to work with a live professional orchestra on stage! Summers are usually a quiet time for our program, but once HSO let us know about this opportunity, our composers jumped at the opportunity.”

Student composers

In addition to Uyehara, the following students had their pieces played by HSO.

James Finamore, UH Mānoa master of music student—“The Death of Shuten-Dōji” is based on a Japanese legend set in the capital city of Heian-kyō, where young men and women have been disappearing. Finamore said, “I felt tremendously honored to have the opportunity to work with the HSO and learn from first-hand experience. It’s one thing to write a composition in your head and have friends around the music department give you feedback on individual parts, but to make adjustments and try out ideas in real-time with a professional orchestra was such a great learning experience.”

Hayden Hawkins, Leeward CC student and private student of UH West Oʻahu lecturer Michael-Thomas Foumai—“Leviathan Ascending” is meant to evoke a narrative surrounding a legendary primeval sea-beast, the Leviathan. Four major sections outline a tense brooding intro, a hastening “attack” and “chase,” a bit of a lull/break from the action and a sudden, fiery finale. Hawkins said, “This is the first time I’ve ever had my music performed by an orchestra, and the experience was surreal and exhilarating to say the very least. In the actual reading session, hearing what parts of my music worked, and what didn’t quite work for that matter, was massively helpful as a learning experience for a young composer such as myself.”

William Watson, UH Mānoa PhD of music student—“Courtyard Dialogues” is inspired by the diverse sounds heard in the UH Mānoa music department, which includes the gamelan, the koto ensemble and the orchestra. Watson said, “Hearing the excellent musicians of the HSO breathe life into the composition was thrilling. Working with the conductor and each section of the orchestra to conjure the various moods of the piece was an invaluable experience.”

Dalen Wuest, UH Mānoa PhD of music student—“Fading recollections (of a dream)” explored the idea of being deeply affected by a bad dream to the point of waking up experiencing an anxiety attack, only to not be able to remember the content of the dream. Wuest said, “Hearing the HSO read my work was thrilling. It is very difficult for a composer to truly ‘know’ what a piece will sound like until live musicians bring it to life off of the page.”

“It was an absolute delight to work with these young, talented composers from UH! The variety of styles, the complexities of the works, and especially the openness to learn from the musicians of the Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra gave me great hope for the future of symphonic music. We look forward to more opportunities to collaborate with UH and the faculty and students of the music department,” said HSO Executive Director Dave Moss.

This work is an example of UH Mānoa’s goals of Enhancing Student Success (PDF) and Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), two of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

—By Marc Arakaki

a conductor in action and two people sitting on a chair