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Art Beat: Robin Williams in Alaska, young artists perform chamber music

Mike Dunham

The suicide of Robin Williams earlier this month sent staffers scrambling to find out whether or not the actor/comic had ever performed in Anchorage, like maybe back in the pipeline days. I found no record of him even stopping over in town in the available newspaper archives, but colleagues dug up a 2010 interview with Decca Aitkenhead of the British daily The Guardian, where it was suggested that movie-making in Alaska had something to do with his resumption of drinking after 20 years on the wagon.

“On location in Alaska in 2003, however, he started drinking again,” Aitkenhead wrote.

She quoted Williams as follows: “I was in a small town where it’s not the edge of the world, but you can see it from there, and then I thought: drinking. I just thought, hey, maybe drinking will help. Because I felt alone and afraid.”

At first I thought this might be a reference to the 2002 film, “Insomnia,” a psycho-thriller set in a highly fictionalized “Nightmute, Alaska” (with big trees, glaciers and supposedly the halibut capital of the world). Like so many Alaska movies it was actually filmed in Canada, aside from a short panorama with a car in what looked like Thompson Pass without any identifiable actors in it. 

Further digging turned up articles from The Associated Press and the Skagway News that put Williams in Skagway in April, 2004. The Gold Rush city was used for staging a lesser known film, “Great White,” in which Williams played an Alaska travel agent driven to desperate means. Though cast and crew were housed in Skagway, the shooting, again, took place just over the border in British Columbia. By all accounts Williams and fellow star Holly Hunter mixed well with the locals -- at least in public. A source with the Skagway news says he doesn’t think Williams purchased the bottle of Jack Daniels said to have started his relapse until late in the process.

I’m a little puzzled about Williams’ depiction of Skagway as remote, within sight of “the edge of the world,” to repeat the cliche. Skagway is well-connected by Alaska standards. It’s a quick 6 1/2 hour ferry ride to Juneau and thence to the contiguous states. It has a road in and out. It has a railroad, for crying out loud. A few weeks in the real Nightmute, in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, might have put things in perspective for the actor. And, as it’s a dry village, things might have turned out differently; for one thing, there are no liquor stores there.

I hasten to add that I’ve seen nothing indicating that alcohol was a factor in Williams' death, regardless of how it may have affected his life.

Young performers in recital

The August 14 recital by Ceylon Mitchell was an ear-opener in several respects. The former East High track star and cross-country skier, now preparing for graduate studies as a flutist at the University of Maryland, is this year’s Young Alaskan Artist scholarship winner for the Anchorage Festival of Music. He opened the program with Bach’s Flute Sonata in E minor, which instantly demonstrated his clear tone, long line, and adroit command of the instrument. The passages where key melodic notes are accompanied by a counter motif to imply a chord were so smooth and articulate that I might have thought I was listening to a flute duet had my eyes not made it clear that the tune was being played by a single set of lips and hands.

The program included Carl Reinecke’s “Undine” Sonata, perhaps the single best-known romantic work for the instrument, Albert Doppler’s “Fantasie Pastorale Hongroise” and “Le Merle Blanc” for piccolo by Eugene Damare. Of these, the big, intense Reinecke piece, with its foreshadowing of Cesar Franck’s Violin Sonata (written after the Reinecke work was published), was the most aesthetically rewarding.

For the first half the piano accompaniment, supplied by Juliana Osinchuk, overpowered the flute. Perhaps the lid needed to be lowered a notch, especially for the Bach. I’ve never really warmed to Debussy’s mystic “Syrinx,” and Eugene Bozza’s fairly contemporary “Image,” which flips from “Afternoon of a Faun” lyricism to edginess and back again, would not ordinarily be on my must-hear list; but in this case they were welcome opportunities to hear Mitchell’s elegant tone front and center.

There are other issues with Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. The building’s acoustics are much-admired, but must compete with road traffic, floatplanes taking off from Spenard Lake and jets roaring into the air from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Nonetheless, it was a lovely concert.

Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major was the piece I was most looking forward to in the Anchorage Chamber Music Festival faculty concert at UAA on Aug. 15. Violinists Alan Tilley and Alec Lindsay, violist Christine Harada Li, cellist Nathaniel Pierce and pianist Cole Anderson gave an enthusiastic reading unburdened by nuance. On the other hand, the performance of the slow movement from Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1, with Li on violin, Pierce and pianist Siyuan Li, was sublimely shaped and sensitive.

I’d call that the highlight of the program, but another offering keeps running through my mind. I was so startled when it happened that I don’t think I was able to bring any analysis to the performance. Pierce and Anderson played “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” from Mahler’s “Ruckert-Lieder.” It’s not uncommon to transcribe songs for instruments; what was unexpected was that Pierce sang the lyrics while playing his cello, and did so pretty well.

The concert included several other offerings of the robust sort, including a very exciting playing of Arcadi Volodos’ frantic reworking of Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” by Siyuan Li. But an unexpected bonus came when the musicians played during a slideshow and movie clips associated with the Anchorage Centennial Celebration. In conjunction with the anniversary, a new orchestral score has been commissioned to accompany “The Cheechakos,” a silent film shot in Anchorage in the 1920s. The ragtime the musicians played (Siyuan Li and Anderson doing piano honors four-handed was a nice touch) probably isn’t from the score, which as far as we know is not complete.

Computers that carve

The Boston-based design duo known as Nervous System will present an interesting program at the Anchorage Museum on Friday, Aug. 22. The team is known for using 3D printers to create jewelry, apparel and accessories. They will give a hands-on demonstration about how 3D printers work and discuss the various types of software and hardware that are available. The lecture, which starts at 6 p.m., is free and open to all comers. But the two-hour workshop that follows -- also free -- is limited to the first 40 people who show up. This is part of the Alaska Design Forum’s “Bling” lecture series.

 

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