Over four consecutive Saturdays, April 14-May 6, I attended four concerts in which new music received its world premiere. The concerts are individually critiqued at adn.com/artsnob, but here's a synopsis of the new compositions.
George Tsontakis' "Comet" was presented by the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra in Atwood Concert Hall on April 14. The piece opens with a descending four note motif in the trumpets, the type of signal that might provide fodder for recognizable development. But the thrust of the work turned out to be atmospheric, not melodic. After some warm sounds from a big brass section and battery of percussion -- suggesting, we're told, the night sky -- and some march-like moments, the piece evaporated away like a snowdrift in the April sun without leaving behind much of an impression. The reaction of the audience seemed to confirm that this potential celestial firework was more like a fizzle.
The performance of Brahms Double Concerto with Paul Rosenthal and Zuill Bailey didn't do much to liven things up. On the other hand, conductor Randall Craig Fleischers tight reading of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, which closed the program, was crisp and alert.
Libby Larsen's "Alaska Spring" was a highlight of the Alaska Chamber Singers program at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on April 21. Former Alaska poet laureate Tom Sexton read each of his five poems in the cycle -- each addressing some facet of spring in the North and the poet's reaction to it -- before the setting of each by Larsen. The first piece, "April," began with the chorus singing an indirect melody reflecting winter to which the accompanying string quartet replied with a smear of notes. The writing became more chordal and the songfulness more expansive until it climaxed in an expression of relief at the first inklings of warmer weather.
The writing was somewhat descriptive, complex but agreeable harmonies, never quite a tune. The lively depiction of juncos in the fourth movement ("In small bird tempo") delighted the audience. The finale, "Walking the Marsh," was the most straight forward and most successful of the settings. Sexton's parade of images was delivered almost in a call-and-response style. Building to the conclusion, the line, "I have walked where mastodons walked," came off as something both grand and ghostly.
It made for challenging listening, but the singers were, in guest conductor Anton Armstrong's words, "impeccably prepared." A letter to the editor published on April 24 called the concert "deeply satisfying, moving." Armstrong hinted that he might consider reprising this piece in Oregon in the next year or so. It would be illuminating to see how a non-Alaska audience would respond to the subject.
The debut of "The American 1812 Overture" by Lee Wilkins drew me to the Anchorage Civic Orchestra's program in Sydney Laurence Theatre on April 28. It's a pastiche in which Wilkins has taken Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," stripped it of all the Russian and French patriotic or folk tunes and substituted American and English songs. (Some, like "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," date from after either the American Revolution or the War of 1812.) He then followed the style, instrumentation and mood of each chunk of the Tchaikovsky. The slow, somber Russian hymn that opens the original was replaced by a slow, somber version of "Yankee Doodle." In place of the Czarist salute in the finale, Wilkins put "The Star Spangled Banner." "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" took the place of its sound-alike "La Marseillaise," though history buffs will note that while Napoleon had to retreat from Moscow (reflected in Tchaikovsky's original) America won its revolution and at least fought to an amicable treaty in the War of 1812.
I'm not sure that there's a way to agreeably mash "America the Beautiful" and "God Save the Queen" together; I am fairly sure that it didn't happen in this piece. The Sydney Laurence audience, however, responded with great enthusiasm and cheers and several stood -- as they should have; after all, it ended with the national anthem. I had to wonder why there isn't a national competition to come up with a completely original "American" overture to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. I guess we'll have to settle for "The Battle of New Orleans."
The real highlight of the program was a well-prepared performance of three movements from Tchaikovsky's "Winter Dreams" Symphony, conducted with vigor and precision by Philip Munger and featuring delightful solos from the wind section, in particular.
On May 5, the Anchorage Concert Chorus featured several new or recent works by Alaskans, notably two fairly brief wordless works by Philip Munger and John Luther Adams. Both were successful, in my opinion -- and perhaps brevity had something to do with that -- and challenging for the singers. Munger's "Alaska Trees" used syllables and effective tone painting to suggest local wood life. Adams' "Sky with Four Suns" broke the chorale into four choruses in the four corners of Atwood Concert Hall, all building the same chord based on open fifths but at different rates of speed.
George Belden's "Thompson Songs," set to the poetry of Elizabeth Thompson, caught listeners by surprise. Going from a choir of singers to a soloist -- Marlene Bateman -- required some adjustment of the ears and it's possible that Bateman misestimated the amount of projection she needed at first. But the words "Undo your voodoo juju" had us leaning forward. Kate Egan sang a second setting and then collaborated with Bateman in a concluding duet. The pieces had a lounge feel to them and a sense of swing reminiscent of some of Malcom Bolcom's art songs in a cabaret style.
The biggest new work was an eight-movement set titled "Alaska" by Victoria Fraser. Each movement nodded at some aspect of Alaska landscape or wildlife, though not all texts were by Alaskans (such as Tennyson's "The Eagle"). The tone was consonant and lush. The best of the set may have been the "North Lights" section, set to excerpts from Robert Service's "Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "Ballad of the Northern Lights."
The last half of that concert featured the Anchorage Youth Symphony bravely plunging into Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. They struggled somewhat with the exposition section of the first movement, but came together well in the development and recapitulation. The male solo singers, John Ken Nuzzo and Anton Belov, were excellent. Belov strikingly sang the opening lines and famed tune without the sheet music; any experienced opera baritone should be able to do this, but I haven't seen it before. It was a masterstroke of professionalism.
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.