The Universal Language

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012
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By Cynthia Sweeney

Lucky we live Hawaii, the saying goes, and one might add lucky to have a symphony orchestra right here in this largely rural community.

The Kamuela Philharmonic is in its eighth year of bringing symphonic, world-class music to the Big Island, and for those involved, it’s all about the love of music.

“We’re not coming together for any other reason. I’ve conducted lots of orchestras and this just seems like an incredible family,” said Madeline Schatz, artistic director and conductor of the Kamuela Philharmonic Orchestra.

Schatz is an acclaimed musician, conductor and teacher. Her musical credits are too numerous to name, as her resume is 11 pages long. She has performed solo violin with orchestras and conducted symphonies around the world, and she is proudest of a recording she made conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

Schatz actually moved to the Big Island to retire. But local orchestral musicians, performing mostly for choral groups, learned of Schatz’s skills and convinced her to help them form an orchestra by volunteering to play. Tired of the politics, stuffiness, attitudes and egos involved in big city orchestras, this was an offer Schatz couldn’t refuse.

“I find that very seldom here. I can make music with people who also want to make music and egos don’t get in the way, most of the time,” said Schatz.

The new symphony debuted in 2004 at Hawaii Preparatory Academy, where Schatz was then teaching, however, there were more people on stage than in the audience.

“We had 19 strings and about eight people in the audience,” Schatz said.

It was not for lack of talent. Word spread quickly and the second concert was a full house, and by the third performance chairs had to be brought in for the overflow. It was then the orchestra was offered use of the Kahilu Theater.

Outside of Honolulu, the Kamuela Philharmonic is the only symphony orchestra in Hawaii. They have been playing to sold-out crowds over the years, although “sold-out” is not quite accurate because there is no admission charge. The musicians, the conductor, board of directors, all are volunteers and the theater space is donated.

Still, each concert the orchestra performs costs between $20,000 – $22,000 to stage. There is the cost for the music, which can run between $200 – $1,200, travel expenses for off-island musicians, music stand rental, truck rental to move equipment, and numerous other expenses.

The orchestra operates as a non-profit organization, and although tickets are not sold, donations are encouraged.

“Madeline is absolutely devoted to the idea for those who can’t pay to be able to enjoy world-class music,” said director of advancement Merilee Holmes. “For those who can pay, put it in the calabash (present at every performance).”

Members of the orchestra range in age from 13 years old to musicians in their late ‘70’s. Some are professional, some are amateurs, others are students. The size of the orchestra varies depending on the music being played. A smaller Mozart performance requires about 45, whereas a performance of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” required 85 musicians. Musicians have traveled from Oahu, Lani and Maui to perform with the orchestra.

Before a performance, rehearsals are minimal. Orchestra members get together one day prior to the concert and for a couple of hours beforehand.

“That’s where I, the conductor, have to sweat,” said Schatz, who is also known for her sense of humor.

The orchestra also brings music into the schools, one of the things Schatz is “most joyous” about. Performances that include Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, get students excited about music, as does getting to touch and handle the instruments as part of a musical “petting zoo.” The orchestra also initiated an annual Concerto Competition last year, for musicians ages five to 18 years old and the winners performed a solo with the orchestra. This past January, three soloists took to the stage with inspiring performances.

The word ‘philharmonic’ is from the Greek meaning ‘to love harmony.’ And as much as the volunteers of this orchestra love what they do, performances, travel, education, everything relies solely on donations.

“We absolutely do depend on donations,” said director of advancement, Holmes. The orchestra is now working towards creating a budget and hired Holmes last year to assist in that effort. “We can’t expect world-class musicians, and our conductor, to continue to play without getting paid. We would like to reach the level of a small regional symphony.”

Last weekend’s fundraiser at the Hilton Waikoloa, was the first in an effort towards that goal. The Hilton donated $15,000 worth of ballroom space, sound and lighting equipment for the event which also featured John Keawe making his orchestral debut. Keawe performed some of his favorite songs accompanied by an 18-piece string orchestra conducted by Schatz. Playing with the orchestra was a life-long dream for Keawe, whose wife, Hope, also danced hula to a song he wrote for her, “Beautiful Dancer.” Those attending also participated in a live auction for a chance to take conducting lessons by Schatz and lead the orchestra in a selection.

Concert master Ursula Vietze emphasized that the goal for this orchestra is to have fun. However, asking the musicians to play without pay is like asking a lawyer to give away their skills.

“It’s different with an instrument. You practice day after day, year after year to get to a level where someone wants to listen to you play. The musicians and the conductor of this orchestra are at a very high level of skill,” said the dedicated Vietze, who sometimes turns down paying work to play with this orchestra.

About 150 supporters turned out for the fundraising event including Waimea residents Darrin and Gee Darien. They have attended orchestra performances around the world in places like Beijing, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“We are really lucky to have music of this high caliper in our community,” Gee said. “It’s a hidden gem. And it’s great for our three kids to see performances at this level.”

Schatz chooses music for the orchestra to play based on what she has conducted before and what she knows people are going to love. Future concerts will feature a piano soloist from Oregon joining the orchestra for a Gershwin favorite, “Rhapsody in Blue.” Schatz’s sense of humor influenced her choice of music for the orchestra’s April 1 concert, with selections by “P.D.Q. Bach” aka Peter Schickele. (If she hadn’t been a musician, Schatz says she would have been a stand-up comic, having been influenced by playing in comedienne Carol Burnett’s television orchestra.)

“That is the purpose of the orchestra,” Schatz said. “It’s where musicians can play, I can conduct and the audience can hear music they love. It creates a sense of joy at every concert.”

For more information about the orchestra and its programs go to