Review: Anchorage Civic Orchestra

Art Snob Blog

The Anchorage Civic Orchestra, conductor Philip Munger impressed on the audience at their Nov. 22 concert, is “not a professional orchestra” but a community effort. The musicians played to about half a house of mostly family and friends who managed to make it to acoustically unfriendly Sydney Laurence Theatre through the exhausting weekend ice storm. Players missed notes. They fell out of sync. The violins sometimes seemed to be playing in two or more different keys. 

I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. 

From the standpoint of content, this may have been the most interesting symphony program of the year. It began with “Elegy for JFK,” written by Munger over the course of the past few weeks after ACO violinist and polymath Roger Duncan drew his attention to the fact that the concert was scheduled to take place on the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination. The performance — and Duncan’s brief remarks about how he first voted in the national election of 1960 — were the only public observation of the occasion in Anchorage on that day insofar as I am able to ascertain. For the record, I didn’t see a single politician or public figure there.

Anyway, the “Elegy” is an appropriately somber and meditative piece that makes good use of brass and concludes with “Taps” emerging through the orchestral chords. The audience seemed cold to it, but it was probably the most difficult piece on the program.

A lively movement from a string quartet by John Christopher Moller, who emigrated from Germany to America shortly after the Republic was founded, followed. Munger had arranged the parts for full orchestra, with three trombones and a tuba adding an almost Sousa-like air to Moller’s attractive string writing and engaging counterpoint. With this work the ensemble began playing better, hitting their marks and seeming to have fun with the act of performing. The audience, likewise, started to warm. The beautiful Adagio from the First Symphony of John Knowles Paine followed, probably the first Anchorage hearing for this American masterwork (which could be said for everything else on the program) and the strings sounded about twice as good as they had with the “Elegy.”

The highlight of the night for me was Munger’s orchestration of Amy Beach’s “Eskimos.” Beach made four piano pieces from Baffin Island Inuit songs jotted down by anthropologist Franz Boas. The original tunes for solo voice and drum were adorned with not-unreasonable harmonies and clever development and frozen into established western rhythms. But Beach at her best was an impressive and thoroughly-trained musical mind whose works remain relevant. The original piano pieces, penned in 1907, absorbed her for years afterward and a revision of them in the 1940s appears to be the last thing she ever did as a composer. 

What caught my attention were the themes themselves, particularly in the slower two movements. A couple of summers ago I heard Nunavut singers David Serkoak and Mathew Nuqingaq in Whitehorse. I was amazed at the flexible  lyric beauty of the songs, so different from most Yup’ik or Inupiat traditional music. The soulfulness of those songs was clearly evident in the first and third numbers, “Arctic Night” and “Exiles.” Curiously enough, the subject of exile provided the substance of one of Nuqingaq’s moving songs.

The first half of the program ended with “Cajolery of the Forest” by Palmer High School student Sterling Maffe, who nervously conducted the premiere; it was perhaps his first time at a podium in a public concert. Munger took a position with the percussion section, ably handling such items as tubular bells and glockenspiel and reinforcing the ethos of collegial collaboration that drives the ACO. 

“Cajolery” is a well-wrought tone poem evoking the northern woods. It mixes the mysterious lightness of Alan Hovhaness and the calculated lushness of a movie score with an excellent and stirring — though perhaps insufficiently developed — song theme that keeps sticking in my head. There was a standing ovation and shouts of approval for the composer at the end of the piece.

William Grant Still’s “Mother and Child,” which should have followed intermission, was dropped from the program because violin soloist Lee Wilkins had fallen on the ice and hurt his shoulder. Instead Munger went straight to Still’s ballet “Miss Sally’s Party.” This is a lively work, but one suspects it is even livelier when it accompanies dancers. Again, the players seemed to struggle with staying together at times and the final “Cake Walk” section didn’t exactly set my toes twitching.

Nonetheless, when the concert ended those in attendance had heard more good and important music in 90 minutes than we’re likely to hear for the next six months. This is the inestimable service the ACO provides. It is indeed a community orchestra, but ‘community’ not merely in the sense of representing a cross section of the place where it practices and plays. It also represents the greater community of art across time and cultures — the pulse of what it means to be human.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

Mike Dunham