Review: Anchorage Symphony Orchestra

Posted by Mike Dunham on November 16, 2013 

The presentation of “Ansel Adams: America” at the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra concert on Saturday raised questions about the nature of music and visual art. The 25 minute piece featured music by the late Dave Brubeck orchestrated by his son, Chris Brubeck, and played as Adams’ photos were projected on a screen above and in front of the orchestra. 

The work opens with a stately wide-angle four note motif. The screen stays black and the lights on the orchestra slowly dim until, as the prelude unfolds, we see snapshots from Adams’ youth. Then the music intensifies and, abruptly, we’re looking at his famous images of Yosemite National Park. The four note motif undergoes some development and much repetition as more images, mainly of nature, follow. There’s a tango theme that kicks in when the scenes shift to the American southwest and Mexico. The music grows more hymn-like as pictures of graveyards and churches come up. Finally it climaxes with the classic moon over Half Dome image. The nearly full house in Atwood Hall loved it. 

It’s doubtful that 2,000-plus people would have paid $40 or so to sit and watch a slideshow of Adams’ work. It’s also doubtful that a straight performance of the Brubecks’ score would have roused the enthusiastic reaction the crowd gave the presentation, which suggests that this symbiosis may be an effective one. The score seemed well-wrought, if static at times, and the orchestration expertly crafted, calculated and cinematic. The orchestra, led by Randall Craig Fleischer, played this work better than they did anything else on Saturday. On all counts it was a success.

But it only remains so if the pictures and the music stay together; one element requires another to come off in this format. This is not “Pictures at an Exhibition,” a piece of music that lives independently of the pictures it was intended to accompany. A few hours after the concert I find myself recalling the familiar photos of Adams but not the music so much.

The rest of the program consisted of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ folksy Suite for Viola and Orchestra and Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. The Vaughan Williams, which featured soloist Anne Gantz Burns, was marred by intonation trouble, though there were some elegant moments. The “Musette,” a duet with the celeste played by Susan Wingrove-Reed, comes to mind. 

The Beethoven was workaday, at best, and sluggish at worst, despite on-the-mark playing from the wind soloists. It might have been improved by eliminating all of the repeats and generally speeding things up.

But, with the Brubeck-Adams piece in mind, one wonders whether the “Pastorale” might have benefited from photos. Take some of the pictures of Alaska scenery by any of several fine Alaska photographers — Carl Battreall’s pictures of the Chugach, for instance — and time them with the tunes. If the “Pastorale” doesn’t quite fit, go for something shorter. The point is, the idea of combining good music with great photos has obvious viability. 

MORE SYMPHONIC MUSIC THIS WEEK; THE ANCHORAGE CIVIC ORCHESTRA will be perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Sydney Laurence Theatre. The program will include the premiere of Philip Munger’s “Elegy for JFK,” debuting on the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, Nov. 22, 1963, and “Cajolery of the Forest,” a tone poem by Palmer high school student Sterling Maffe.

I've had access to scores of both pieces this week. The "Elegy" is a somber lament in 3/4 times. I may be able to post a link to an electronic version of the music later this week.

Maffe's piece is an impressive compositional effort. As I looked over the score here at the paper I must have been humming some of it, because a co-worker asked where she'd heard that before. I assured her that it was new and original. But her instinct is dead on. It's that rare caliber of music, stuff that sticks in your head without pictures. Though some evocative photos of boreal woods might make a fascinating addition.

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