Former Child Prodigy Does Christmas

Maestro Craig Young and dance instructor Penny Young PHOTO COURTESY MICHELLE YOUNG

Maestro Craig Young and dance instructor Penny Young PHOTO COURTESY MICHELLE YOUNG

One spring evening in 1973, while I was a student at Harvard, I was walking down a Boston street and faintly recognized a young man from a distance. He refused to make eye contact with me, and it was evident that he was cautious about his surroundings in the dark, especially when a tall, silhouetted figure was approaching him.

As he drew closer to me, I realized the guy attended my high school. He recalls me tapping him on the shoulder and asking, “Eh, you went Iolani, yeah?” He was startled, but we both cracked up in laughter. He had apparently been visiting a friend during spring break.

That short conversation began nearly four decades of acquaintance with Craig Young, who was once a child piano prodigy in Hawaii. Our paths crossed again in the late ’70s at our old alma mater, where he was a music teacher, and I taught history and coached basketball.

Honolulu Symphony concertgoers may remember Craig as a brilliant virtuosic pianist. He played beautiful music in the early ’60s at the then-HIC Concert Hall during the symphony’s “Listen and Learn” annual concerts. He started studying the instrument at age

6. At the tender age of 10, he mastered tickling the ivories and blew people away with his rendition of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 11 in F major, KV. 413, when he performed with the full symphony.

His next appearance with the Listen and Learn concerts would be at age 13, playing Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, which was written by Ludwig van Beethoven in 1800 and was first performed in 1803 by the composer himself.

I’m sure the thought crossed his mother’s mind at the time that Craig could well be the next Beethoven or Liberace of our time. The boy wonder widened his professional repertoire with a different instrument when he was 15 years old. He won another solo spot accompanied by the symphony — this time as a violinist playing Lalo Eduard’s Symphonie Espagnole, Op. 21. While other 16-year-olds were building transistor radios and jet-propelled gas planes with ready-made kits, this musical sensation was building an audience as he was brought back to perform a standard classical repertoire, Grieg Piano Concerto, written by one of the leading Romantic-era composers, the late Edvard Hagerup Grieg of Norway.

Hawaii Youth Symphony continues its tradition of showcasing young talents during its 45th educational concert held Dec. 8 and 9 at Blaisdell Concert Hall.

Young continues to make his own mark in the music industry as an adult. This will be his 28th year conducting annual Christmas Concerts at the Honolulu Tabernacle on Beretania Street for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“At first, we were doing the Messiah, which was great and a marvelous work, but over the years I changed the format and used traditional music mixed with orchestra, and made it an event for all families and individuals to enjoy,” he explains.

The two-day Christmas concerts are so inspirational and uplifting that they always are packed solid. It is often referred to as the local Mormon Tabernacle of sorts, but you don’t have to be an LDS member to participate in the orchestra or choirs (adult, young adults and youth choirs).

“The orchestra is made up of LDS church members and their friends, music teachers, members of the professional musicians and teachers’ groups,” Young says. “They enjoy doing it because it helps bring the spirit of Christmas and sharing their talents with community.”

The free concerts, which are open to the public, will be Dec. 20 and 21 at 7 p.m. Do yourself a favor: If you have never attended one, treat yourself and your family to a great holiday concert this year.

Young has been director of orchestras at Punahou School for the past 27 years. The program tripled in size since he took over, now with 500 enrollees.

“One of the things I am most proud of in my teaching career is that I organized the Parade of Orchestras in the DOE’s Central District, which is aimed at building the orchestra programs in Hawaii because they were going extinct, due to the kids preferring marching bands over orchestra,” he says. He also teaches private violin/piano lessons.

He received his master’s in piano performance at University of Colorado and earned his undergraduate degree in music at Eastman School of Music, Rochester University in New York, where he studied under internationally renowned violinist, the late Zvi Zeitlin.

“He was a good teacher, but very strict and temperamental. I wasn’t sure if I was in the right field because music no longer felt good. I felt everything I did was wrong,” recalls Young.

He returned to piano, where he enjoyed playing beautiful music again because late pianist Maria Luisa Faini changed his life.

“She was a piano technician who worked mostly on techniques, which is one of the hardest things to do. She corrected us measure by measure and was very detailed.”

As for Craig Young, a teacher in his own right, wife Penny Young says, “He’s an extremely dedicated professional. He’s funny and makes learning fun. He cares about his students. When Craig takes on a project, he goes above and beyond what is expected.”

Penny, the love of his life, is instructor/owner of the world-acclaimed Drill Team Hawaii.

“He doesn’t like to dance, and dance is my life. I have to teach it for a living because he won’t take me out dancing,” jokes Penny.

In recent years, Craig has incorporated Penny’s Drill Team dancers in his popular Broadway concerts that he conducts every summer. The tender-hearted maestro and vibrant dance instructor personify the idea that a couple that enjoys music and the arts together stays happily ever after together!