A Word With Conductor Brian Dollinger

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The Kamuela Philharmonic Orchestra (KPO) will present its season finale, Literature Comes to Life, at the Kahilu Theatre on Sunday, March 22, 2020, at 2:00 p.m. At center stage will be KPO’s Artistic Director and Conductor, Brian Dollinger. Ticket info below.

Over the past four years, I’ve had the pleasure to get to know and photograph Mr. Dollinger as Big Island Music Magazine has reviewed many of their concerts. I even spotted him rocking out at a recent Tiffany show.

In anticipation of KPO’s upcoming concert at the Kahilu, I caught up with Brian for this phone interview. We talked about the content for Literature Comes to Life, and other music programs that KPO does with Big Island schools.

How did the Literature Comes to Life program come about for you?
Literature and music are very closely related. Throughout history, the stories that they tell are interwoven with each other. For me, coming up with ideas that are based on literature that people know, and people are very familiar with, they may not know that there’s a connection with music and what composers do. A lot of folks don’t know that things are connected. They may know Shakespeare, but they may not know that all this other wonderful wealth of music has been created over hundreds of years. They think of books that they grew up with, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, for example, and not until these recent years what the movies did, is there a connection between the movie, the books and now this fantastic music. For me, connecting dots for people in different ways that they’re not used to is really important for me, and literature is a perfect example of how we can do that.

How are the pieces in the concert supposed to work together?
They actually hit on different geographic areas and different types of stories. For example, we start with German folklore that was in an opera by Carl Maria von Weber’s called “Die Freischutz” (The Marksman).  The overture depicts some of that music from Weber’s larger work, it’s dark. But then you hear hunting calls at the very beginning with the horns. It takes you, the listener, into a really graphic place that you couldn’t imagine just reading the story. We also then experience American technology with Hollywood. The J.R. Tolkien novels, I recall when I was a kid, was really fantastic and really hyped up and everybody was reading it. We also “travel” to France with Maurice Ravel with a totally different sound. He has written many pieces that were originally for piano duets, Mother Goose Suite, it’s five different movements depicting five different little stories that many of us grew up with. Sleeping Beauty is in there as well as Beauty and the Beast.

Brian Dollinger

Can you talk about the arc of the show?
We’re going to start off in the darkness of the Germanic culture and the wolf’s glen with “Die Freischutz,” and then we’re going to go through an emotional ride that brings us up with energy and excitement and conflict and battle, and then bring us back down to the nursery rhyme idea with the Revell. Then we’re going to take another ride up with Lord of the Rings. The funny thing is, even if someone has never seen the movies, because I know many in our audience will have probably read some of the books, but probably not interested in the movies, they will hear and feel the story that they remember reading within this music. I tell you, it’s going to knock people’s socks off because we’re going to lift them up really high, and then gently place them into this other psychological place of being. It’s going to be really exciting!

Besides concerts, what other types of programs does KPO provide to the Hawaii Island community?
The most important thing beyond concerts is the music education programs. Music education in the Hawaiian Islands is in need of desperate support. So, throughout the year, we have musicians that go to schools around the island and do presentations that introduce them to instruments and playing music for them. We also have musicians that go to schools to work with their ensembles, whether it’s brass players working with the trumpets or string players working with string players. When I’m on island, I go out and visit schools too. I work with the ensembles, whether they’re in the band, a choir, or strings, I work with all of them. I’ve also gone to talk about music with kids, from very young, elementary through high school. I’ve been all around the island. Last month I drove almost 800 miles because of all of the schools there. At one school I talked to a piano class just about what it means to me and what it can mean to them as they grow up. What I’m trying to do now is hopefully get some students to play instruments as they go through their schooling, but also get an appreciation for music and what that means in their lifetime.

You’re wrapping up your fourth season with the Orchestra. How were you selected to be KPO’s Artistic Director and Conductor?
Six years ago, KPO decided to have an international search for a new music director. Artistic Director Madeline Schatz was retiring back to the mainland, so they wanted to take the next step forward. I believe they got around 110 applications from around the world, and they go through a process of whittling that down, doing phone and Skype interviews. They brought three conductors on the island with meetings, interviews and getting to know each other, and then a concert. I was extremely thrilled when I got the call. I was the first candidate in October, so I had to wait all year to find out what happened. That was great to see the Hawaii area code come up on caller ID. I’m the envy of many of my conducting colleagues because I get to come and make music in Hawaii.

Is there anything else you’d like to add before we go?
If you’ve never been to an orchestra concert or even if you have, but it’s been years, don’t think you know what it’s about. I want people just to come and try it. Most of the time, when people just come and experience it, their reaction is, ‘Wow! I didn’t know I liked this.’ Then they get hooked. Bringing the children is important as well. Seeing the excitement in their eyes, and they light up when they hear music live. My biggest thing is inviting people to just take a chance. You’re probably going to be surprised by your reaction when you come to a KPO concert. We just want to invite everybody who’s never been, or it’s been a long time, to come and see what we’re about.

Editor’s Note: KPO’s March 2020 Kahilu show was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.

This interview has been edited for space, continuity, and clarity. To hear the full interview, please click the play button below.


Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and a Big Island filmmaker. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.

Courtesy photos provided. Concert photos by Steve Roby.

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