Quote Unquote: Meet the Hawai‘i Youth Symphony’s New Music Director

After a competitive nationwide search last year, New York native John Devlin, 33, was selected as the Hawai‘i Youth Symphony’s music director from a pool of more than 80 candidates.

John Devlin, who served as music director of two youth orchestras in Virginia and the cover conductor of the acclaimed National Symphony Orchestra, replaces retired maestro Henry Miyamura. He hopes to expand music programs in underserved communities and inspire the next generation of musicians and leaders.


photo: aaron k. yoshino


Of the 110 students in [the top ensemble], maybe five will become [professional] musicians. Many people will spend most of their time thinking about those five. I really like thinking about the other 105. We need people who love their orchestra experience so much that they’ll give their children music lessons. They’ll donate to the symphony.


I picked the cello when I was in fourth grade, but they ran out of cellos. They moved to the next instrument in alphabetical order, and I got the clarinet. It was an accident, but from then on, a very happy one.


“I love thinking about what rules we can break to make people have more fun in the concert hall.”


The biggest project we started in D.C. was Gourmet Symphony. We partnered with chefs and created experiences that combined food, drink and music.


I came from an area where if you put a pin on the Kennedy Center and drew a circle with a radius of 20 miles, there are 17 youth orchestras. Here, there’s one. That mixture of highly ambitious and highly talented students is just a joy to work with.


I packed up 24 70-pound boxes and shipped them media mail. Those were all of my scores.  I had a few horrible days at the post office where they got to know me very well.   


What makes me feel most at home [in Hawai‘i] … is the kindness of the people. You hear about aloha spirit, but when you live here, you really feel it. [My wife and I] think we’re going to be here a long, long time.


The first piece I ever conducted was Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet (in college). The conductor got sick on the day of the concert, so I had to conduct the whole thing at a moment’s notice. From there, I was hooked.


We’re [playing] Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet now. They’re so ready technically that there’s this element of storytelling. When you have the fight between the Capulets and the Montagues, how do you make the audience feel every sword stab? When Romeo and Juliet fall in love, can you make us feel that connection?


When I feel the orchestra learn something new and play better … those are the moments I live for as an educator. I see the students know more about themselves through what they do as a musician.


If you think about the orchestra, it’s the perfect small model of a community. Everyone has a role, but if everyone doesn’t make the stroke the same way, it won’t sound good.


The Hawai‘i Youth Symphony serves about 700 students from more than 100 public, private and home schools every year. Learn more at hiyouthsymphony.org.