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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 31, 2007

Former Honolulu Symphony conductor Donald Johanos, 79

 •  Obituaries

By Wanda A. Adams
Assistant Features Editor

Donald Johanos, who for 15 years served as conductor and music director of the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra, died Tuesday in Naples, Fla. He had been ill for some time, according to son-in-law DJ McDonald.

Johanos was 79.

Honolulu Symphony members and past colleagues remembered Johanos as a shrewd recruiter of young musicians and a champion of "new music" who was behind a short-lived composer-in-residence program here and won an American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers award for "adventuresome programming of contemporary music."

He withstood some criticism from the Honolulu Symphony board and its audience for his dedication to contemporary music. "The community wasn't always ready but he took the view that Beethoven was once 'new music,' Stravinsky was once 'new music.' People would learn from it," said Robert Sandla of Honolulu, a past executive director of the symphony. "He believed it was important because it stretched the musicians. They were playing something new and different and that was good for them."

Symphony assistant principal clarinetist James Moffitt, who was hired by Johanos in 1981, said Johanos worked hard behind the scenes to support musicians and "build bridges" to the community and the political structure to help strengthen the beleaguered organization, which has a long history of financial instability.

Johanos joined the symphony in 1979 at a rather tumultuous time after the retirement of conductor Robert La Marchina. "He really strengthened the orchestra and settled it," Sandla recalled. Johanos left at another tumultuous time, during a labor dispute which saw the cancellation of what would have been his final conducting season, the 1993-94 season. He never was able to conduct his planned final concert featuring a Mahler piece.

The Iowa-born Johanos, whose original instrument was the violin, graduated in 1952 from the Eastman School of Music and in 1958 won the International Conductors Competition sponsored by the Netherlands Radio Union.

He became music director and principal conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 1962 and later moved on to the Pittsburgh Symphony. He first guest-conducted the Honolulu Symphony in 1978.

In 1993, he directed the production of the symphony's first recording in some years, "Three Works by Dan Welcher with the Honolulu Symphony." Welcher, who spent a year in Hawai'i as composer in residence, dedicated his Symphony No. 1 to Johanos.

Johanos conducted or played on more than a dozen recordings.

Judith R. Neale of Hawai'i Public Radio, who worked with Johanos as public relations director for the symphony, remembered him telling her about a concert in which he participated: It was an Eastman School of Music performance of the "1812 Overture" and, when the cannons went off as part of the piece, some pranksters released an enormous bunch of feathers, which floated down onto the audience, startling everyone and breaking up the orchestra. "He was so convulsed, he couldn't play," she recalled him saying.

"Music was everything in his life," Sandla said, but Johanos did have other interests. He was a sports fan, a member of the Columbia Inn Roundtable softball team, and he enjoyed time at the beach.

The conductor is survived by his third wife, Jane. His second wife, Corrine, died in 2001. He had seven children.

McDonald said the family is settling details of a memorial service, and a scholarship fund will be set up in Johanos' name.

Reach Wanda A. Adams at wadams@honoluluadvertiser.com.