Q+A: Constance Uejio
The Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra, formerly known as the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra, was founded in 1900. The symphony is the second oldest orchestra in the United States west of the Rocky Mountains. Originally housed in a clubhouse on the slopes of Punchbowl, the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra now plays from the Neal S. Blaisdell Concert Hall in downtown Honolulu.
Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Constance “Connie” Uejio (née Harding) began her musical training with piano in the second grade; her teacher was her uncle Emerson Harding. When the family moved to Reading, Pennsylvania, piano studies continued with Ruth Kitzmiller Snyder. As an 11-year-old, Uejio soloed on piano with the Reading Symphony, playing a movement of Haydn’s Concerto in D Major.
Since the age of 3, Uejio had been interested in the harp. In the 7th grade, her parents cashed in their insurance policies to buy Connie her first harp, a rebuilt Lyon & Healy Model 17 made in Chicago during the 1920s. Uejio had to travel roughly 40 miles to Allentown, Pennsylvania, to take lessons from her first harp instructor, Dorothy Knauss, as there was no harp teacher in Reading.
During high school, Uejio continued with her piano studies and accompanied many choirs in the Pennsylvania area. Harp continued to be her focus, though, and, as a 16-year-old, Uejio again found herself soloing with the Reading Symphony, playing a movement of the Dittersdorf Concerto for Harp. She also performed with the Allentown Band, the Reading Pops Orchestra, at churches, and with various choirs and chamber ensembles. Upon graduation from Exeter High School, Uejio attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where her teacher was Eileen Malone. She was awarded the Performer’s Certificate upon graduation from Eastman.
Uejio went on to perform as second harpist with the Rochester Philharmonic under Malone, as well as with the Buffalo Philharmonic under Michael Tilson Thomas, in the Syracuse Symphony, and as principal harpist with the Northeast Pennsylvania Philharmonic and other orchestras in upstate New York. She also spent several summers of private study with Marcel Grandjany, the internationally-renowned concert artist and eminent head of the harp department at the Juilliard School in New York City from 1938 until his death in 1975.
In 1978, Uejio and the family (husband Glenn and children Rebecca and Steven at that time) moved to Glenn’s hometown of Honolulu, Hawai‘i. Uejio continued performing music as second harpist with the former Honolulu Symphony Orchestra, and performing with various groups around the state. A third child, Kirk, was born in 1980 and, the following year, Uejio took over the principal harp position with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra. Now performing with the newly risen Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra (HSO), fall 2016 will mark her 35th season as a principal harpist here in the islands.
Besides her role as a symphony musician, Uejio also teaches harp privately, is the Assistant Director of Music Ministries at Central Union Church and does freelance solo and chamber music work on the harp, piano and organ.
Summit (S): Tell us about how you began learning to play the harp.
Connie Uejio (CU): My father had mentioned, since I was about 2 or 3 years old, that the harp was such an interesting instrument, and wouldn’t I like to play it one day? My uncle is an organist and frequently worked with a harpist at his church who would become my first teacher, so we had that connection too. Piano was a way to get to the harp, as that first teacher, Dorothy Knauss, would not take a harp student unless she had several years of piano lessons first.
S: What’s the best part about being an orchestral musician in the HSO?
CU: I have always wanted to be an orchestra musician; I love the music we can all make together—it’s so rewarding and it fills me with joy. We have so many fine musicians in the orchestra, and have had so many in the 34 years I’ve been principal harpist.
S: Who is your favorite composer?
CU: For the orchestral repertoire, I love the French composers—Berlioz, Fauré, Ravel, Debussy and Grandjany. Another consistently fine composer for the harp was Gustav Mahler.
S: When did you know you wanted to make a career out of music?
CU: Actually, I never remember wanting to be anything other than a musician. I started piano lessons as an 8-year-old and harp lessons five years later. In 8th grade, I had my first professional harp gig. By that point, I’d already done a lot of accompanying on piano of choirs in school and at church, so it seemed natural to me to continue on that path into adulthood.
S: What are your hobbies, interests and activities of choice outside of music?
CU: My husband Glenn and I love to spend time with our children and their families, all on the mainland now; we also enjoy visiting my mother and extended family in Pennsylvania and traveling to the Canadian Rockies or taking a cruise to Alaska. I also enjoy reading and watching TV.
S: Other than performances with HSO, where can we catch you performing around town?
CU: I play for private events like weddings and parties; I’m frequently at Central Union Church and occasionally I’ll perform with Chamber Music Hawaii.