Anchorage symphony opener long on entertainment

Mike Dunham

Anchorage Symphony Orchestra personnel had reason to smile at the first concert of the season on Saturday night. The 2,200-seat Atwood Concert Hall was sold out and, we were told, 75 percent of those in attendance have tickets for the rest of the season.

That's good news for any nonprofit arts group because, while individual tickets mean more money on a per seat basis, season subscribers provide a cushion of certainty for the presenter who can concentrate on selling, in this case, one-quarter of the house instead of the whole thing.

Credit goes to a recent marketing campaign offering two-for-one season tickets to new subscribers that sold nearly 550 subscriptions. Conductor Randall Craig Fleischer took note of the expectations that some of those newcomers might have. "Putting Beethoven's Fifth, the most famous symphony of all time, on the program was no accident," he said.

As has become customary for season openers, the National Anthem and "Alaska's Flag" were played with (at least some in) the audience singing along. Then two memorial pieces followed for two departed World War II veterans, Bach's "Air on the G String" for cellist Arthur Braendel, who played in the first Anchorage Symphony concert and remained a member of the orchestra for 60 years, and Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," for Sen. Ted Stevens.

With these preliminaries, the program proper didn't start until 8:25 p.m., nearly a half hour after most patrons were in their seats. It began with a suite from Reinhold Gliere's ballet "The Red Poppy." "The Russian Sailor's Dance," which concluded this arrangement, is the only thing of Gliere's that gets played much, but it was interesting to hear some of the other music from the ballet presented in listenable segments. (Gliere could be long-winded.) The sly hint of the Socialist anthem, "The Internationale" caught our attention and a lovely extended violin solo, nicely played by concertmaster Kathryn Hoffer, pleased our ears.

Pianist Timothy Smith was in his element as the soloist in Franz Liszt's "Concerto in A." The more structurally complex and melodically ruminative of Liszt's two concertos, it nonetheless gave Smith ample opportunity to demonstrate his prowess with Liszt's hammered trills, sprawling chords and flying glissandos. One man at intermission was overheard exclaiming, "I can't believe any human being can play like that!" -- although he'd just seen it with his own eyes.

By the time intermission was over, it was about 20 minutes to 10. Overtime and exhaustion loomed, not to mention the patience of some in the audience. Fleischer addressed the situation with perhaps the fastest interpretation of Beethoven's Fifth I've ever heard. He didn't repeat the exposition section of the first movement or anything else that I noticed. He didn't even linger over the fermatas.

Actually, this is a pretty good way to hear the Fifth, like looking at a landscape captured in a very clear photograph. There's a natural tendency for reproducing artists to add inflection in their version of a well-known score, often drawing attention to places they think are particularly important by slowing down the tempo. Sometimes it works, but there's always the chance that it won't.

Late Saturday night was no time to gamble, and Fleischer made the right call. The crowd -- old-timers and newbies alike -- responded with a standing ovation, cheers and whistles.

For those keeping track, the last chord sounded at 10:05.

Find Mike Dunham online at or call 257-4332.