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November 4, 2019IM -
In August 2018, after waiting two years to see the instrument he commissioned from one of the world’s premier oboe makers, oboist J. Scott Janusch played for the first time an oboe unlike any that has ever existed—one made of rare, 300-year-old Hawaiian kauila wood. The instrument, with a reddish-brown finish set off by 18-karat gold-plated keys, is a work of art in itself. Janusch got a bit sentimental after he blew the first notes into the oboe at the manufacturer’s offices. “It was a very emotional experience to say the least,” he says.
Now, nearly one year later, Janusch and the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra are about to perform a specially commissioned concerto for solo oboe and orchestra with Hawaiian and Western percussion instruments, written specifically to highlight this one-of-a-kind instrument.
“This is not for me; this is to build an instrument for Hawaii,” says Janusch, who has been playing the oboe for nearly one year and will soon pass it on to Live Music Awareness, the nonprofit organization that funded the project. “This particular object can be a bridge, or a link, from the ancient culture to today to remind us that what we have is precious and needs to be cared for in its new life.”
Janusch, the principal oboist for the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra and a member of Local 677 (Honolulu, HI) and Local 6 (San Francisco, CA), has been playing in Honolulu for 32 years. For more than a decade he has wanted to create and leave behind an instrument unique in all the world—an oboe made of indigenous Hawaiian wood and imbued with the spirit of Hawaii. His goal was to create an instrument that would benefit and inspire future audiences and students in the place where he spent the majority of his professional career. He has called his undertaking the Hawaiian Oboe Legacy Project.
After one failed attempt using Koa wood, Janusch managed in 2016 to obtain a supply of extremely rare and culturally significant kauila wood that had been salvaged after a hurricane nearly three decades earlier. The kauila tree is found nowhere on Earth but Hawaii, and was prized by pre-contact Hawaiians for its hardness, durability, beauty, and versatility. Janusch personally brought three billets of the wood to London to ask the craftsmen at Howarth’s of London if a world-class instrument could be made. They said they would try, and it turned out the wood was an extraordinary material from which to construct an oboe. The instrument was completed (which includes aging the wood) in less than two years, whereas a normal oboe from African hardwood takes about five years to produce.
Janusch also commissioned a piece of music to feature the instrument, written by renowned composer Jon Magnussen, a professor at the University of Hawaii – West Oahu, and a Local 677 member.
By the end of 2018, the oboe—now called the “Hawaiian oboe”—was completed; the musical composition was finished a few months later.
Janusch says the Hawaiian oboe was “beautiful and sounded wonderful” when he first experienced it. He says it not only looks different from a traditional oboe, with its reddish-brown color versus black, but it also sounds different. “I think that orchestral oboes are more like a stiff Cabernet, and the Hawaiian oboe is more like a musky Merlot,” he says. “But they’re both beautiful.” Janusch has been getting to know the oboe ever since.
Magnussen’s challenge was to create a composition that would connect and reflect history and modernity, the East and the West. “I did so much research for this project,” Magnussen says. “My wish was to make direct connections from the music to this oboe and honor the Western part of the legacy as well as the Hawaiian part. I was really excited to take this on.” For Magnussen, who moved to Kauai when he was 10 years old, there was an immediate connection to the project. His father still lives on the island, and the Koke’e State Park, where some of the kauila trees grow, was one of his family’s favorite places as he grew up. “That personal connection made it clear that I needed to highlight how important this wood was to the indigenous Hawaiians before [British Captain James] Cook arrived [in 1778],” he says.
Inspired by Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” which was written in 1721, around the time the kauila tree that the wood came from began to grow, Magnussen also considered Hawaii’s two seasons—wet and dry—and the 12 lunar moons that span the Hawaiian year. So he created a 12-movement concerto, with each movement—what he prefers to call “vignettes” because of their narrative, storytelling character—featuring a concept or object traditionally made of kauila wood. It also begins and ends with live sounds of the Koke’e forest where the wood which would eventually become the oboe grew, which Magnussen recorded.
“What surprised me was that the birds that help propagate these trees weren’t there. The sound of those indigenous honey creepers weren’t there. I was really perplexed because I wanted that to be part of the recording,” he says. “But the sad truth is that our temperatures are rising and a lot of the mosquitoes are going up further into the mountains, which is the habitat of these birds. Those mosquitoes are feeding on the birds and giving them avian malaria, so they’re dying off. And I began to realize that this piece is also about how we might look at the ancient Hawaiians who lived in a very sustainable way as a model for how we might approach living our lives now.”
“Nā Kau ʻElua | The Two Seasons” is over 40 minutes long, unique, and “requires a lot of stamina from the soloist,” Magnussen says.
“The piece does have its challenges,” Janusch agrees. In movement six, for example, which describes a bird catcher waiting for hours in a bush, there is one note that Janusch holds for 14½ bars—about one minute, 20 seconds—for which he must simultaneously inhale and exhale using a technique called circular breathing. “This invokes the patience of the individual,” he says.
“The great thing about this piece is the variety. There are soaring passages and tricky, technical passages, and a variety of colors and types of music that are very inspiring to me,” he says. Such as in movement nine when three local cultural practitioners join the symphony and beat Kapa cloth during the entire movement as the regular beat.
“Nā Kau ʻElua | The Two Seasons” debuted in its chamber version in concerts presented by Chamber Music Hawaii this past spring around Oahu to great success, Janusch says, while a full symphonic concerto version will premiere November 9-10 in the Hawaii Symphony’s Masterworks Series. After that, a few more chamber performances of the piece are planned before the oboe leaves Janusch’s possession and goes to Live Music Awareness (LMA), which will assume responsibility for the instrument. LMA has been managing income and expenses relating to the Hawaiian Oboe Legacy Project; $40,000 has been raised in support of the HOLP from generous individuals and a grant from the city and county of Honolulu.
Under the LMA’s stewardship, the oboe and the “Nā Kau ʻElua | The Two Seasons” commission will become available for other musicians to use in the years to come.
“I’m hoping the piece will continue to be played and will live on,” Janusch says. “The messages of preserving our local culture, nurturing our land, protecting our endangered species, and appreciating a work of musical art to inspire all of this are contained within this project. … I’d love to see it take on a life of its own.”
For more information on the Hawaiian Oboe Legacy Project, visit