Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

David MacKenzie farms through the volcano. Catching up with retired New Bedford Symphony Orchestra music director

Ka-Lea in the house, after the 6.9 tremblor.

Ka-Lea in the house, after the 6.9 tremblor.

“You’re here by the grace of the gods, and you have to be adaptable.”

David MacKenzie is talking about Hawaii—specifically, the Hawaiian notion of ʻĀina, which loosely translated means “devotion to the land.” And when the land around you is spewing molten lava, and shaking everything you own off the shelves of your house, you need that kind of devotion.

The retired music director of the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra moved to the big island in 2014, after a transformative decade-long run at the NBSO. His goal was never to retire, but to pursue other interests: in this case, farming 20 acres near Mauna Kea with his wife, Ka-Lea.

“It’s fun, and I’ve never worked as hard physically,” he says. “It’s challenging and rewarding, and you learn a lot. I’m trying to narrow down what we grow”—right now he farms kale, collards, carrots, green onions and other vegetables—“to what people want to buy. There are certain things that just don’t sell or grow as well as they do on the mainland.”

Farming the land presents its own challenges. When the land shakes everything you own down to the floor, that’s another challenge.

The recent volcanic activity—about 35 miles away, an eruption from Pu’u O’o to the south of where the MacKenzies live—isn’t close enough to threaten them with lava. But the resultant earthquakes certainly make themselves felt.

“We have hundreds of quakes every month,” MacKenzie says. “Usually around 3 on the scale, and you hardly notice those. But last Thursday one hit that was 5.3, and the first thing I said was, ‘I’ll bet there’s some new lava flowing somewhere.’ Turns out the lava lake had collapsed, and all of it had disappeared into the mountain. Now it’s coming out.

“There was some minor damage to our place, but then a 6.9 hit and that was really rock ’n’ roll. Fortunately our house was built by a retired Air Force engineer, and he overbuilt everything. The house has a steel frame and castle blocks. 

“But you do learn a lot about how not to decorate a house,” he says. “They say experience is what you get just after you needed it.

“We’re not putting knick-knacks and dishes on narrow shelves anymore, and we’re using a lot of double-sided tape and this stuff called ‘quake gum’ that you put on the bottoms of vases and statues.”

Compared to the life-threatening lava flows, which have destroyed communities and are still spewing toxic gases, a shake-up in the house probably seems like a small thing. But the destruction is close enough that the MacKenzies are feeling its effects.

“We’ve got a lot of friends down there,” he says. “We’re on a different mountain—our volcano hasn’t erupted in 100,000 years. It’s a different lava zone, and there’s a river between us and it. But we had a refugee friend for a few days, and just yesterday two more vents opened up. Most of us are affected one way or another.”

MacKenzie certainly has not given up his musical life, even though the farming fills up his days year-round. He has always conducted and taught with various orchestras in South America, and next month he travels to Bogota for a couple weeks of advising conductors. 

“The Bogota Philharmonic is the top orchestra in the country, and they’ve created their own El Sistema in the barrios,” he says, referring the famous Venezuelan music education system. “I’ll go down for a little training, a conducting program. It’s something that’s always been dear to my heart. I’ve been doing this mysterious thing called conducting for 40 years, and it’s time to share some of the things I’ve learned.”

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