Review: Anchorage Symphony's Wagner concert is season's high point

Art Snob Blog

Richard Wagner isn’t everyone's mug of Jagermeister, but Saturday’s all-Wagner program by the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra will stand as the highlight of the 2013-14 season for me. 

The strings in general, and violins in particular, have never sounded better. On reflection, they’ve been making marked improvement throughout the past year. The unified, on-target sound of the Overtures to “Meistersinger” and “Flying Dutchman” wouldn’t have been as big, precise or confident in previous years. Nor the big passage for cellos at the beginning of “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” or even the low rumblings of “Forest Murmurs.” 

One doesn’t think of Wagner as a writer of solo music, but his rich orchestrations are filled with short and long exposed passages for individual instruments and the various players did excellent work, from the tuba dance in “Meistersinger” to the shepherd’s pipe — actually the English horn — in the Act III Prelude of “Tristan und Isolde.”

“Tristan” excerpts made up the entire last half of the evening. Tenor Ric Furman was very good, though sometimes swamped by the orchestra. Soprano Kelly Cae Hogan had no such issues, having a splendid hall-filling voice that figuratively lifted me out of my back row seat when she nailed the high notes lusciously and powerfully.

Four big chunks of the second act were included along with the Act III Prelude, Tristan’s death and the “Liebestod.” Conductor Randall Craig Fleischer explained that the harmonic structure of the piece thwarted his efforts to blend them, so each excerpt was just clipped off at the end, the thread dangling. There are some arrangements of the music that, with weighty re-writing, try to compress Wagner operas into tone poems; but there’s an older tradition that does it the way it was done last night, which was fine by me. I agree with Fleischer that most attempts at concocting transitional music for Wagner are distracting if not downright dumb.

Like the violins, Fleischer, who has led the ASO for 15 years now, has come a long ways. His early concerts here often lacked luster. But in recent programs, and especially last night, he has sustained a balance of control and energy, which is no easy thing when tackling “Tristan.”

The “Tristan” excerpts were convincing and beautiful. Projected translations of Wagner’s rhapsodic, philosophic poetry helped us enter his “unmeasured realms of ecstatic dreams.” I would happily paid for another ticket to hear the whole thing again right then. But the audience didn’t seem to agree with me; there was much rustling, a couple of exits in my part of Atwood Hall and even an open speaker from a cell phone or radio. There was a standing ovation, but it was by no means universal.

However, the whole crowd did go to its feet, deservedly so, when Fleischer had cellist Beth Leffingwell stand. It was the final ASO concert for the musician and author who has been part of the symphony for 50 years.

The symphony also announced its upcoming season at Saturday night’s concert. 

Pianist Olga Kern will return for the opening concert on Sept. 27. Kern will perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Sibelius’ Second Symphony is also on the bill.

The Seventh Symphony of Prokofiev and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony will be featured on Nov. 15 along with “Legend of the Northern Lights” by Christopher Theofanidis, performed with visual images by Jose Francisco Salgado, who coordinated the celestial images that accompanied the ASO’s presentation of Holst’s “Planets” in 2012.

Fairbanks cellist Dane Johansen, who’s making a name for himself by walking a 600 mile pilgrimage route in Spain this summer while performing Bach suites along the way, will be featured in Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C on Jan. 31, 2015. The rest of the program will be occupied by Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

Dancers with the Joffrey Ballet will perform with the symphony in “An Evening at the Ballet” on Feb. 28 and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony will wrap things up with two performances on March 28 and 29.

In addition to the classic concert series, there will be a program of music from Disney films played and sung while clips from the films are shown, with two performances on Oct. 11. Two “silent” films will be shown with live orchestral accompaniment on Jan. 17, Buster Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill Jr.” and Charley Chase’s “Mighty Like a Moose.”

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.


By Mike Dunham