Top of the Pops
“We try to perform classical music, written for the orchestra, in an entertaining way,” says James Durham, conductor, musical director and one of the founders of Maui Pops Orchestra. “I say this a lot: style is everything.” He utters the last three words with emphatic staccato. “We try not to be stuffy. If you play everything the same way, it can be so boring, and no one will come.”
Stuffy pomposity is often—and unfortunately—associated with orchestral music (Seinfeld fans, for example, may recall the 1995 episode “The Maestro,” in which Elaine dates an orchestra conductor who haughtily insists that everyone refer to him as “Maestro.”) Countering such antiquated misconceptions is a battle of morale for orchestras in the modern age.
Strung to this issue is the ever-growing difficulty of keeping books in the black. The Honolulu Symphony filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in early November of last year—effectively canceling the remainder of the season of a dynamic orchestra, founded in 1900 and heralded as “the oldest orchestra west of the Rocky Mountains.” Dozens of other orchestras across the country are succumbing to a similar fate, leaving loyal audiences grieving. To stay afloat, creative enterprises of all kinds have to get creative.
With our very own Maui Pops—a community orchestra that strives for accessibility—the modifier of its name implies the excitement of popular music. That aim to entertain will be on display this Sunday, during Maui Pops first concert of the year. Titled “Music from Around the World,” the program pools from the orchestra’s library of international selections and will include a special dance performance and two numbers that showcase rising-star guest musicians.
“Every concert has a theme,” says Durham of Maui Pops’ shows, which typically number four annually. For this installment, Durham explains that “music from various countries or regions have a sound synonymous to the area, region or nation—sometimes being nationalistic—and it’s often recognizable to the ear.”
Keeping with the orchestra’s goal to “entertain, educate and empower our listening audience to fully enjoy the broad spectrum of music written for the symphony orchestra,” the night of the show, Durham says, “I’ll be doing a lot of talking, though not as a lecture. My goal is to educate.” Musical insight from a conductor and 15-year veteran violinist with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra will undoubtedly be fascinating, as will the historical elements associated with each number.
Sunday’s program will consist of music from 10 countries as well as the mythical South Pacific island of Bali Hai. The dramatic folk sound of “Russian Sailors Dance,” gypsy music of “Hungarian Dance #5” and fiery “Tango Argentine,” give clear indication where the pieces originate—yet sounds can be deceiving. “Ritual Fire Dance”—a piece that evokes the passionate flamenco of Spain—was written by an Italian composer, while “Adagio for Strings”—though it sounds Italian—was written by an American. These cross-cultural compositions are “very common,” says Durham.
“Adagio for Strings” will feature a special performance by five advanced string students. “We try to do that as much as we can,” says Durham of bringing in youth to the orchestra. Additionally, dance students from the Maui Academy of Performing Arts will lend their legs to the rigorous chorus line moves of the French cancan, for the piece “Gallop-Can-Can.”
The evening’s most unique piece may well be the after-intermission installment titled “The Warrior,” for orchestra and taiko drums. Also student-centered, the piece was arranged by Maui Pops’ own principal percussionist Preston Jones, a senior at Maui High School and a three-year regular member of the orchestra. Son of the founders of the Maui taiko group, Zenshin Daiko—a nonprofit with about 40 youth members whose talents have taken them from Oshkosh, Wisconsin to Hachioji, Japan —Jones will lead three other taiko drummers and three Japanese flutists from the group, providing a powerful centerpiece to the orchestral arrangement.
With captivating programming and strong youth involvement, the future of Maui Pops looks bright. Yet many additional challenges exist. Some are satisfying—Durham takes particular pride in creating a cohesive sound while balancing the wide range of skill level that exists within a community orchestra. But, there is always the bottom line. Just the expense of renting or purchasing music from publishing houses is sizeable. Some pieces are no longer available for sale, and the cost of rental-only often starts around $400 each. Each song requires pages upon pages for each musician, tailored for their part.
“Music is printed on extremely thick, heavy paper, with a high cloth content,” Durham says. “It has to be of very high quality to withstand wear and tear,” he adds, referencing the consistent handling, as well as the repeated writing and erasing of notations. Given the cost, when developing a show Durham tries to use pieces from their own library as much as possible—the huge volumes of which are meticulously tracked and maintained by the orchestra librarian, Julie Patao.
Another advantage of using what they have is that the music is already well suited for the orchestra. Suitability is a challenge for any musical director, but it stands as a particularly hyper-local obstacle, as the transient nature of the Valley Isle means musicians and members come and go.
Players currently number about 35—10 new players have been added in the last year—and though there are many double-decade strongholds who have played with Maui Pops since the very beginning, the orchestra must still import the occasional musician from Oahu. Essential players sometimes don’t reside on Maui. Currently there are no bassoon players on Maui, and though the Valley Isle now boasts four French horn players, a few years ago, there were none.
“We are very fortunate to have a harpist, Kristine Snyder,” says Durham. “We’re very grateful, [because] financially, it would be impossible,” he continues of the pricey logistics entailed in shipping a full-size harp to Maui from Oahu.
It is with obvious pride, though tinged with foreboding given the knowledge of other sinking symphonies, that Durham says, “the all-volunteer board of directors is tirelessly working, and we are successfully operating with [a] balanced budget.”
That’s not to say bankrupt orchestras like the Honolulu Symphony didn’t employ hard work and dedication, but all have cited steep drops in the philanthropic donations that kept them afloat.
“My first thought is for the musicians—they’ve lost the place to express themselves,” says Durham of Honolulu’s bankruptcy. (He adds that he holds high hopes for the re-engagement of that orchestra.) “But most importantly, my thoughts are with the community. It’s an important part of culture and life anywhere. Without [a symphony], it creates a cultural void.” – MauiTime, Anu Yagi
Maui Pops Orchestra
Next performance: Sunday, January 24, 3:30pm, Castle Theater, MACC, Kahului, 242-4228 or mauiarts.org