Live Music Options: Honolulu's Got a Few

May 9, 2019

The toy piano was inducted into the galaxy of concert instruments by John Cage's 1948 composition, Suite for Toy Piano. Cage was intrigued by the plinky sound and lack of range--he explored freely, and many others have followed. The spirit of exploration and discovery is a big part of contemporary classical music.
Credit Thomas Osborne

The live music experience is easy to fall out of, what with anything you want available, any time you want it, wherever you are.  The thing is, being in a room with musical instruments vibrating, and musicians leaning into their efforts, is a very different experience and Honolulu offers some bracing encounters you may not have expected. 

The UH Contemporary Music Ensemble, directed by Thomas Osborne, presented five diverse contemporary classical works linked by movements from Philip Glass' Suite for Toy Piano. Western classical instruments, including two toy pianos, were joined by Korean instruments for a uniquely East-West experience.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

Let’s start at UH Mānoa, at a concert by the UH Contemporary Music Ensemble led by Director Thomas Osborne, also an associate professor of composition.  Osborne introduced the concert saying, just listen, don’t applaud between pieces, just listen, and applaud at the end.

The concert started with the first movement of John Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano.  This piece was written in 1948, the first to establish the toy piano as a bona fide concert instrument.  A toy piano sounds nothing like a regular piano because it’s actually little plastic hammers hitting metal rods, and John Cage just liked the chimy sound and limited range. 

In this concert, movements from the Suite for Toy Piano were inserted like palate cleansers between each course.

What we were listening to is called contemporary art music, or contemporary classical---music wrestling its way out of the western classical tradition. A good example of a classic of the night's genre was the second piece, from 1973, Music in Similar Motion by Philip Glass.  It involved pianos, toy and otherwise,  with clarinets, flute, and saxophones.  Glass and others spearheaded a kind of music called minimalism—a word he disavowed.  He liked to say he “immersed the listener in a sort of sonic weather.”

Some of this could and does sound a little alarming.   Professor Osborne realizes when people walk into a contemporary music concert, they’re in for music they may never have heard before.  He’s sympathetic.

Osborne:  You just have to listen to every piece on its own terms. Come  with an open mind, of course. but know that when you sit down and listen to a piece of contempoarary classical music, you're not going to be hearing anything that sounds like Beethoen.  You’re going to expect to hear new sounds, new colors, and new ways of playing insturments.  Perhaps even new instruments!

I almost feel like  I hear perversity, like people refusing to sound tuneful. 

Osborne:  I think a number of composers would say sure, my music is not meant to be tuneful and for a good period of the 20th century there were composers who actively worked not to be tuneful.  But in the 21st century, I think composers have relaxed a little bit, they’re a little less dogmatic about such things, and I’d say no composer today would feel embarrassed to write a great tune.

That’s a relief.  This music is experiential above all, and Osborne says, don't be afraid to not like something.  One piece, Stillness, by Korean composer Seungyoung Park, did create a most expansive atmosphere.  It was played on flute, piano. cello, percussion, as well as haegeum---a Korean fiddle you bow on your knee, and gayageum---a Korean zither that is played flat, like a koto

The enthusiastic Windward Choral Ensemble led by Susan McCreary Duprey at St. Andrews Cathedral.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

Osborne:  What we’re interested in at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa is in what we call intercultural music, music which somehow fuses East and West, in our case.  The faculty and students all compose music not only for the usual Western classical instruments but also for East Asian traditional instruments.

That’s getting to be a rich area of exploration.  Osborne and his young contemporary music crew are into something that Hawai‘i, particularly, could be good at. 

The UH Contemporary Music Ensemble closed with Tom Flaherty’s Igor to Please with two grand pianos, two standards, two toy pianos and electronics.  Yes, it’s a reference to a very groundbreaking Igor, Stravinsky.

That same week in Honolulu, the HPU International Chorale and International Vocal Ensemble, the Windward Choral Society, Kapolei High School Hurricane Singers, and members of the Hawai‘i Symphony performed at St. Andrew’s Cathedral.  Beautiful setting.

Choral singers, and there are many across the islands, make the case that singing is good for you.  The HPU International Vocal Ensemble did a fine job with Ikos, by Galina Grigorjeva, a composer from Crimea.

Windward Choral Society is an incredibly strong group, led by Susan McCreary Duprey, who also leads the Kona Choral Society, with great vigor!

The combined choirs were led by HPR Choral Director Alec Schumaker.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

Three songs they performed were based on melodies sung by the Krao tribe, that lives in the Amazon, in northwestern Brazil. 

This free concert concluded with Gabriel Faure’s Requiem, led by HPU Choral Director Alec Schumaker.  Well over 100 voices swelled and echoed in St. Andrews Cathedral.  I saw some standing at the back who had been drawn in by the music--- joggers, pau hana workers, who were uniformly glad they’d stopped in.  It was standing room only.

The Windward Choral Society will perform selections from the Faure Requiem and other works at their season finale, Sunday, May 20th 2019 at St. John Vianney Parish, free admission, and over 100 voices.

By the way, if you like Hawaiian music or singer songwriter kinds of things, a great place to check out nowadays is Waiwai Collective, Thurs-Saturday.  Tonight, it’s Imua and Tiffa—Imua Garza, a super local musician and his muse.