Note-by-note young maestro impresses

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Hyrum Kohler, a sophomore at McNary High School, plays his Concerto of Broken Bows, an original composition at McNary's Knight of Arts. Kohler is a featured soloist at a Salem Youth Symphony concert Sunday, April 27. (KEIZERTIMES/ Eric A. Howald)

Hyrum Kohler, a sophomore at McNary High School, plays his Concerto of Broken Bows, an original composition at McNary’s Knight of Arts. Kohler is a featured soloist at a Salem Youth Symphony concert Sunday, April 27. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes 

McNary High School sophomore Hyrum Kohler can do something few others can replicate.

Have him stand with his back to a piano and play a note of your choosing. He can turn around and replicate it with no other auditory or visual reference. It’s a fun trick, but perfect pitch can be equal doses enlightening and frustrating for Kohler.

If he hears music slowed down or sped up from its typical performance, he’ll know it’s wrong and want to fix it. On the other hand, the 16-year-old has had five of his original compositions performed in public venues.

“When I hear music, I see the notes on a page. I’ve only met one other person who could do it, and that was here at McNary,” Kohler said.

On Sunday, April 27, Kohler will be a featured soloist in a Salem Youth Symphony (SYS) concert. The performance begins at 3 p.m. at Willamette Valley Music Company, 484 State Street, Salem. Tickets are $10 at the door.

Kohler, who turned 16 this week, will perform the second movement of Miklós Rózsa’s Viola Concerto, a piece that won him the top spot in the SYS competition in January.

“Rózsa composed it in the 1980s. I tend to like the newer composers because there’s a better chance that the audience has never heard it. There’s also a lot of experimentation,” Kohler said.

Kohler first started playing the viola in fourth grade under the wing of Whiteaker Middle School music teacher Bonnie Gallagher.

The viola was a spur-of-the-moment choice and he’s since expanded his skills to the violin. One of his latest toys is a case that can hold both instruments.

“I treat them more like children than instruments,” he said.

The viola is a good two inches bigger than the violin and requires a wider spacing of the fingers while playing. Kohler started composing music in middle school. His first full composition, Variations on a Sad Day, ended up being 13-minutes long.

“I started playing something on the viola and I liked how it sounded. I just kept adding to it. I wasn’t trying to tell a story, I was just figuring out ways to express the title,” he said. “Every time that I didn’t feel as happy as I wanted to feel, I would sit and play and add a little more to it.”

By the time he moved past eight grade, two of his pieces had been played by the Whiteaker orchestra. He sent one original piece to instructors at Lewis and Clark College and they brought in professionals to play it. Yet another piece was commissioned by the McKay High School orchestra.

Most recently, he played Concerto of Broken Bows at the Celtics’ Knight of Arts. The performance drew a winning bid of more than $500 for another original composition in addition to a standing ovation.

He still has a soft spot for the piece he sent to Lewis and Clark. It was made for a quartet and starts with a violin, adds a viola, then a cello and, finally, a second violin.

The last movement features the four instruments halting play in reverse of the order they were introduced originally.

“The musicians who played it pointed out chords they really liked, and they liked the overall structure,” Kohler said.

If there’s still some part of you that’s feeling like an overachiever, Kohler also became an Eagle Scout in March.

With plenty of time before he needs to decide on a career, Kohler said he’s making the most of all opportunities to expand his skills and knowledge.

“I know that I want to pursue a musical education, but I’m not sure what exactly. I don’t know whether I want to perform, or teach, or conduct or study musicology. I’m trying to do as much as I can now so I can make that decision,” he said.

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