Philip Munger's latest symphony, "Hindu Kush," combines powerful content and brawny, serious compositional structure with compelling, attractive sound. The piece, which received its premiere on Friday night from the Anchorage Civic Orchestra, may be his best work to date.
"Hindu Kush" reflects the composer's thoughts about the intractable animosities in that troubled region, which stretches from northern India through Pakistan and into Afghanistan. Understandably, its tone is somber.
The first movement, "Bamyan Voids," refers to the destruction of the gigantic, ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001. It begins with three strikes on the tubular bells suggestive of funereal church bells or the temple bells sometimes used in Buddhist ceremonies. The music proceeds with ominous slowness, speeding up, growing more massive and weighty until the smashing of two gongs -- perhaps standing in for the explosions that blew up the ancient statues -- signals the climax. After a brief calming, the three bell strokes are heard again.
The second movement, "Women's Ghazal," lets a little sky show through with a plaintive, longing tune that hints at hope. It contrasts with a dance, interrupted by some brutal brass passages. In pre-performance remarks, Munger noted that he used various songs by Afghan women here.
The first theme of the second movement becomes a ground bass for a series of variations in the third, "War Dirge." But the initial harsh statement of the theme by the brass leaves it devoid of the hope heard in the original. The seamless passacaglia reaches its peak in a glowing, but joyless, major key iteration that leaves the hearer breathless before dissolving into a quiet but unsettling variation for English horn.
The finale, "Peace Prayer," is based on a tune recorded in Kashmir. In contrast with the other three movements, it's a cheerful melody with a second section that's positively uplifting, a near cousin to certain old American folk hymns, like "Simple Gifts" or contemporary hymnist Marty Haugen's ecumenical anthem, "All Are Welcome."
The ready accessibility of this highly singable song makes it easy to follow Munger's variations, which maintain a dance-like quality before the contemplative bells ring for a final time to close the symphony.
One can find similarities in this final movement to Cop-land's "Appalachian Spring," as one may liken the second movement to part of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. However, Munger's orchestral ideas are clearly his own and he deploys them in service to the music, not as sound effects for their own sake. His skill in organizing the material in this case is equal to what we hear in the Bartok and of more substance and thoughtfulness than in the Copland.
The audience -- some of whom had been trying to applaud since the end of the first movement -- gave a standing and shouting ovation and called the composer, who was also the conductor for the concert, back for three bows.
Though "Hindu Kush" was the only world premiere on the program, it was reported that the first half of the program consisted of Alaska premieres of at least two other pieces, Liszt's symphonic poem "Orpheus" and the Violin Concerto of Alexander Glazunov. If it wasn't the first local performance of Schubert's Overture to "Rosamunde," it was certainly the first in a long time.
The orchestra that played Munger's symphony magnificently performed shakily in these pieces. While the brass was solid and the winds were good (the oboe/English horn trio of players particularly stood out), the upper strings had disconcerting trouble with intonation. So did Walter Olivares, the soloist in the Glazunov.
In fact as intermission came on, I realized I was getting a fever and the symptoms of a cold. I wondered if getting to bed and pills quickly wouldn't be more prudent than sticking it out in Sydney Laurence Theatre for the next 40 minutes to hear the new symphony.
Thirty seconds into "Hindu Kush" I forgot all about the symptoms and congratulated myself on deciding to stay.
Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM