Jon Magnussen ’86 experienced both a proud and surreal moment in 2015, when he attended a celebration of Punahou’s 175th anniversary and heard the School’s Symphony perform “Swell Lines” – music he composed about watching ocean swells on Kaua‘i. He loved how the students nailed the piece’s complex rhythm and structure, and how the music soared across Dillingham Hall, at such a significant occasion.
Magnussen originally wrote the piece for string quartet, but he arranged it for string orchestra in dedication to Jonas Carlson, Punahou’s director of Academy orchestras, the Symphony and the School he attended for only two years, but which launched his journey as a composer.
He remembers arriving his junior year and being blown away his first day on campus. “Going to Punahou felt like an opportunity I had been searching for all my life,” says Magnussen, who was born in Sierra Leone, Africa, where his parents served as medical missionaries.
At a young age, an eclectic mixture of traditional African drumming and classical music playing on his mother’s record player fueled an interest in music, and he started taking violin and piano lessons. The family moved to Kaua‘i when he was 10. As a freshman, he joined the Hawaii Youth Symphony and commuted to Honolulu every other week to practice and perform.
During his two-year tenure at Punahou, Magnussen seized on all that was available. He became a violinist in the Symphony and sang in the Chorale. He took part in Holokū and the Chamber Music Program. He also played varsity volleyball.
He began composing music during his senior year and co-wrote a song with his classmate and future wife, Michelle Nalei Akina ’86, which their classmates performed at their graduation. “It was the first piece I composed that was performed by other people,” Magnussen says. “Years later, at our reunions, classmates can still remember their parts.”
His decision to dedicate himself to music came earlier that year, during a conversation he had with the late Gary Heidel, former music faculty and Chorale director at Punahou. “I asked him if I should study music or pursue a liberal arts degree,” Magnussen recalls. “He told me, ‘Only choose music if you know in your heart that you can’t not choose it.’ As soon as I heard that, the choice was easy.”
Magnussen focused on music at Cornell University, then earned a scholarship to study piano and music writing with masters in Paris. While in France, he won a seat in the Conservatoire Nationale Supérieure de Musique de Paris. He then returned to the United States and earned a master’s and doctorate in music composition from The Juilliard School.
In 2000, he was named artist-in-residence at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he spent seven years leading a new music series and presenting talks. He returned home to Hawaiʻi in 2007, joining his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters, Kaela ’15 and Lia ’19. “Every other place in the world I have lived has always felt short-term,” he says. “The idea of being happy in a place forever – that’s a feeling that I seem to have reserved for Hawaiʻi.”
Upon his return to the Islands, Magnussen initially worked as director of education for the Honolulu Symphony. In 2011, he accepted the challenge of building the music program at University of Hawaiʻi West Oʻahu, a job he now sees as being much bigger than just teaching music. “Having a music program in Kapōlei is an opportunity for the community to not only learn music, but continue making music,” he says. “We are building a beacon not just for the students, but for the community.”
Currently on sabbatical, Magnussen has spent the past few months working on an oboe concerto for Scott Janusch’s Hawaiian Oboe Legacy Project. Janusch is the longtime principal oboist for the Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra. The project started with famed kahuna, Ed Kaiwi, finding a piece of kauila wood that had been felled by a hurricane in Kōke‘e. The wood found its way to Janusch, who took it to famed oboe makers, Howarth of London. Magnussen estimates that the wood started growing in the 18th century, right around the time Vivaldi wrote “The Four Seasons.” To celebrate that, Magnussen decided to compose “Two Seasons,” with each month to be represented by a movement connected to kauila wood. The piece will premier on May 6 and May 20 on O‘ahu, with performances by Chamber Music Hawaii.
From working with the world-famous Limón Dance Company at the 2002 Olympic Arts Salt Lake Festival to building a music program from the ground up, Magnussen feels musically complete. “It continues to be a dream,” he says. “I’m able to write what’s in my heart and hear my music performed by amazing musicians.”