Symphony review: Anchorage performance may have been concerto's West Coast premiere

Mike Dunham

Although not announced as such, the performance of Jennifer Higdon's Piano Concerto at the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra concert on Saturday night may have been the work's West Coast debut.

Neither the soloist, Susan Wingrove, nor guest conductor Mark Russell Smith, nor this reporter could find any record of the concerto being played anywhere after its 2009 debut in Washington, D.C. Nor is it likely to get many more airings before vanishing into the myriad of untended plots in the great big graveyard of charmless contemporary music.

Nonetheless, Saturday's presentation merits notice for three reasons:

• Higdon, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in music, is a living American composer who has written other works that are currently programmed with regularity.

• The concerto itself is enormous, symphonic in scope and quantity, formidable in its challenges to the performer.

• The effort by the Alaskan musicians to bring it to life deserves high praise. The players poured their hearts into it. Wingrove revelled in the complexities of the score with consummate virtuosity and nuanced the limited lyrical elements with intelligent sensitivity. The applause that drew three curtain calls was mainly for her.

The concerto opens with a ruminative solo and builds in intensity after the orchestra joins. An extended lumbering march evoking the spirit of Conan the Barbarian leads to a cadenza and the first movement closes quietly.

The slow movement features passages with chamber groupings accompanying the piano, meditative moments trading off with at least two more marches. The finale begins with a welter of clacking percussion and concludes with a repeated downward-zagging series of notes and a crisp, clean end.

There's a lot of colorful instrumental combinations, but nothing sticks out -- or sticks with the listener. For an often frantically busy piece consuming a half hour or more, there was no sense of transport or journey after the first movement. By the middle of the slow movement the constant showiness had become tedious; the entire composition might have worked better had that section and the finale been about half as long. Arthur Honegger's tone poem "Pacific 231," the first piece on the program, made most of the same points in less than seven minutes.

Peter Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony supplied the second half of the concert with the kind of riveting melody the first half lacked. The orchestra had some minor intonation missteps and more spots were the attacks were out of phase. One might always wish for a few more strings in this piece, but the violas, particularly, more than carried their weight.

Smith's pacing was fairly standard and fairly effective with the only surprise coming with an unexpected accelerando at the climax of the finale, which he whipped into a near frenzy. There was a long silence after the last note ended followed by a much longer ovation which had several members of the audience on their feet.