En Pointe: On Our Toes!

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It’s a perennial favorite: the Kamuela Philharmonic Orchestra’s (KPO) winter concert that features the winners of the Madeline Schatz-Harris (KPO’s founder) Youth Concerto Competition.  The competition unites the two pieces of the KPO’s mission: bringing high-quality orchestral music to the Big Island, and nurturing a love and understanding of orchestral music in our island’s young people.

But if that wasn’t enough, in a partnership with the West Hawaii Dance Theatre and Academy (WHDTA) which has a similar mission to KPO’s only focused on dance, the two additional pieces were ballets. Dancers joined the orchestra on stage “en pointe,” which means dancing on the tips of your toes.

The first piece was Dance of the Hours by Ponchielli, and it is familiar to almost everyone whether they know its name and composer or not. Especially for people who grew up in the 40’s and 50’s, it’s remembered from Disney’s movie Fantasia, which introduced a generation to classical music through cartoon story telling. As kids, we laughed, watching the improbably graceful hippos, alligators and ostriches “en pointe.” The piece was also used in Felix the Cat cartoons, and the tune made famous again in “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah, Here I am at Camp Granada.”  Given those reference points, it’s hard to hear the music without laughing – or at least grinning!  But conductor Brian Dollinger’s version did not indulge in farce; it was light, fluid, and temperate, full of contrasts in tempo and dynamics,  but not in an exaggerated fashion as in the cartoons. It was refreshing to hear it played “straight!” In the final section, suddenly hippos, alligators and ostriches appeared from the wings, and then “baby ballerinas” 3 to 6 years old came prancing out.  Adorable is putting it mildly!

Kiana Kawahara

The concerto competition this year was for woodwind, brass, percussion, and piano players.  Each winner selected their own performance piece.  Sixteen-year-old Kiana Kawahara chose Cecile Chaminade’s Concertino for Flute. It opens and closes with a lyrical, soaring melody that showcases the flutist’s ability to produce a full, shimmering, golden tone. The middle section is like an “Etude” or study, featuring chromatic scales, syncopation, and lightning-fast passages that require dexterity of finger and tongue. Kiana calmly landed it with aplomb.

Davan Sagara

Davan Sagara, 17, is a trumpet player.  His choice was Arutiunian’s Trumpet Concerto in A-flat major. The beginning is stirring and martial, and the rapid major/minor chord and key shifts are typical of Slavic dance and folk music. Sagara is a master of dynamics, bringing emotional punch through building and diminishing volume.  In one section, he uses a mute – a piece placed in the horn to dampen the sound – which allowed for a softer timbre for the melancholy melody.

Playing a wind instrument is like being a breath-hold diver.  You have to be sure you have the right amount of breath for a whole passage, so you don’t come up sputtering for air; both young players were not only not breathless, they weren’t even a bit ruffled. Both pieces had lengthy cadenzas, or solos, where the artist can do showy riffs on their own; both performed marvelously, without rushing to the finish line.

Isabelle Liu

Isabelle Liu, at 10, is a seasoned performer.  She won this competition before, when she was 8, and went on to play at Carnegie Hall in the American Protege International Concerto Competition, where she won 2nd place.  So, we parents in the audience didn’t have to worry about her getting nervous and losing her cool.  One wonders how her small hands can reach across the octaves, but she does so with ease, and uses what looks to be her 50-pound frame and arm strength to help give weight to the notes that need emphasis.  Beethoven’s first Piano Concerto in C major allowed her to exhibit her technical ability, and she always clearly brought out the melodic line even when her other hand and other fingers were engaged in other energetic actions.

“en pointe”

The final piece, excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, brought out the talented WHDTA ballet dancers again, as well as two professional guest dancers from the mainland. Dancing highlights included Mako Yamamoto in the Hungarian Dance solo; her high spirits and humor were a perfect match for the energetic and humorous choreography. Alexis Pargett as the White Swan with her impossibly long and undulating arms gave a beautifully dignified and restrained performance, and it was a pleasure to see Andrew Fung as the Prince, clearly a budding artist. The lovely pas de deux (steps for two) by the guest artists featuring impressive lifts was complemented by concertmaster Ursula Vietz Koehler’s violin solo, and then duet with cellist Herb Mahelona, reminding us of the immense individual talents held within the Orchestra.

Conductor Brian Dollinger

Maestro Dollinger is coming into his own. We love the increasing programming with young musicians and appreciate the partnership of the KPO with the WHDTA. The musicians and dancers kept us all not just “on our toes,” but on the edges of our seats – the easier to rise at numerous points for standing ovations. It was indeed a “brilliant” performance!


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

Visit Kamuela Philharmonic Orchestra’s website: http://www.kamuelaphil.org

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