Beyond Talk Story: Musical Exploration of the Battle of Kuamo’o

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Kamuela Philharmonic’s “Of History and Nature”

When have you, especially on our little Big Island, gotten to attend a World Premiere of a newly composed piece of classical music?  At the Kamuela Philharmonic’s spring concert, a full house of expectant concert goers got to do just that. The anticipation was palpable.

To make it even more unique, it was the premiere of a Symphonic Suite composed by one of Big Island’s own.  Herb Mahelona is the first cellist of the Kam Phil, and he has also been the choir director at Kamehameha Schools in Kea’au, inspiring young artists to sing opera. And more: his nine operas are based on stories from Native Hawaiian history and mythology; he is the only composer of operas in the Hawaiian language. They are not exports of so-called “aloha” culture, but ask difficult questions and mine significant events and decisions that have determined the past and future of Native Hawaiians. The Symphonic Suite is based on his opera,The Battle of Kuamo’o, and was written expressly for the Kam Phil.

L-R: Herb Mahelona and Brian Dollinger

To get us in the mood for the battle royale between Hawaiian royals, Director and Conductor Brian Dollinger started with Verdi’s Overture to the opera Nabucco, which also depicts the rivalries, power grabs, and military battles waged between family members.  Because the Hawaiian Suite was written for the Kam Phil, it does not use Hawaiian instruments as in some other Mahelona works, and has more of the feel of a classical European Symphonic work. That is not a criticism; the music reflects timeless themes, just as Verdi’s Nabucco, set in ancient Babylon and written 200 years ago, still resonates with us today.

It was a special treat to have the Suite conducted by the composer himself, and it was a wonderful gesture for Maestro Dollinger to give him that opportunity. Since Mahelona is also a member of the orchestra, he could not be better positioned to understand the range of the musicians and to be able to bring out their best through both his composing and his conducting.  Under his baton, the violins in particular came to the fore with power and unity. The percussion section was also impressive, with snares adding martial flavor in The Battle of Nu’uanu and triangles ringing in The Final Farewell.

Before the piece and before each section, Mahelona talked story with the audience to tell us the history that we would hear explored in music. The opera humanizes an important moment in Native Hawaiian history: the battle that once and for all put an end to the traditional kapu system practiced for countless generations.  This was not a frivolous battle for power or riches, as in Nabucco. On one side, Prince Liholiho who became King Kamehameha II at his father’s death, is asked by his mother to eat with her, which would break the kapu (forbidden activity punishable by death) on men and women eating together under the same roof.  On the other side, his cousin, Kona Chief Kekuaokalani, believes that giving up Hawaiian traditions will spell the end of the Hawaiian Kingdom.  The cousin proves to be right:  the breaking of the kapu by Liholiho is the first step in the relatively short distance – less than 50 years – to the hostile takeover of the Hawaiian nation by US interests. Kuamo’o is a battle over the future of the Hawaiian people.

However, the Suite focuses less on the politics and more on the personal tragedy of Chief Kekuaokalani and his wife Manono. Even though Manono loves her husband deeply, she remains loyal to Liholiho. Part I, The Battle of Nu’uanu, is suspenseful (I was reminded of the score to Lord of the Rings!) with the tension evoked by the steady drumbeat in the background; but because this is a story of love of nation and of husband and wife, a sweet melody floats sadly over the snares. Part II is a love song between Kekuaokalani and Manono, as he tells her that he must leave and fight, and she tells him that her spirit will give him comfort. The beautiful melody in the triangle’s ringing tone is repeated by different instruments in a lovely set of variations. Part III is full of foreboding with a mood created by percussive beats like a ticking clock as Liholiho makes the difficult and fateful decision as to whether to break kapu or not.

The final section, The Death of Kekuaokalani and Manono brought performers from Kamehameha Schools to the stage, with a battle scene between the husband’s forces, armed with spears and traditional Hawaiian weapons, and the wife who heads the all-women artillery squad for the King, armed with rifles. It’s not surprising that Kekuaokalani falls in the battle, which he himself expected.  Manono is beside herself with grief, and takes his spear and dies with him. Both armies grieve together; regardless of which side they are on, all are related and all share respect for each other.  Kayla Enanoria’s powerful soprano soared both in anger and in despair; and Ioane Boshard’s baritone was strong and steady. This was the most traditionally Hawaiian section of the suite, with the voices incorporating the vocalizations of chant as well as of Western operatic traditions. Chant, rather than music, is what Native Hawaiians used for ceremony including hula, and there are many different styles of chants and ways in which the human voice is used, none of them familiar to the Western ear. Music came later with the missionaries, which again illustrates the intersections that happen when cultures meet, merge, and clash.  Mahelona’s music utilizes this blending of old and new.  The audience was moved and thrilled.

It was difficult to come back after Intermission for a traditional symphony, in this case, Brahms Symphony No. 2, after the uplifting and emotionally draining Symphonic Suite. The Kam Phil seemed exhausted too; the horns were slightly off, and the performance was not crisp; it felt like the various sections were doing the best they could, but the orchestra was not coming together as one.

Herb Mahelona

However, we all got what we came for. Mahelona’s groundbreaking work is destined to become part of the repertoire of orchestras the world over – and he’s not finished!  Hawaii and especially Big Island is so fortunate to have someone of his stature teaching our kids, playing in our orchestra, introducing Native Hawaiian history, language and culture to places far beyond our boundaries. We look forward with anticipation to being at the World Premiere of his next marvelous compositions!


Meizhu Lui didn’t know there was any other kind of music except classical until she hit junior high! Piano and flute have been her own instruments of choice. She is now pursuing her bucket list goal of deepening her musical knowledge and skills.

Photos: Steve Roby

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