Alaska Life

From 1999: The Great Communicator

This story was originally published in We Alaskans magazine on Oct. 24, 1999.

Randall Craig Fleischer, the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra’s new music director, occasionally forgets how to eat. That’s what he tells fifth-graders, anyway. With a charismatic smirk and a bushy head of jet-black hair, he strode into Miriam DeLap’s music class early this year, when he was auditioning for the Anchorage job, and plopped down a brownie and a fork.

Fleischer, who won a standing ovation at this season’s opening concert Oct. 9, is a bicoastal, citified night owl. Even when he’s wearing a tux and tails, the 40-year-old conductor looks like a rock star suffering through an extended tour. Catch him before noon and he may have dark circles under his eyes. Catch him after noon and the circles have faded, to be replaced by a 5 o’clock shadow. So when he claims to have forgotten how to conduct a fork into his mouth, one might believe him.

‘‘Help me out, ’’ he told the Lake Otis Elementary School students. ‘‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me today.‘'

''Put the brownie in your mouth, '' a student volunteered. Fleischer leaned over, ready to press his face directly into the brownie.

''No! Use your fork!'' a few kids called out. Fleischer speared the brownie with a fork and prepared to push the entire fudgy square into his mouth.

The students -- some of them ''the challenging kind, '' not readily drawn into such educational antics -- started paying attention, DeLap recalled. They crafted their responses more carefully. ''Break the brownie into bites first, '' one would suggest. And then: ''Now take one forkful, and bring it to your mouth.''


''Now put it in your mouth, '' students told him. But they forgot to tell him to chew. ''Now chew, '' they said -- but they forgot to add ''swallow.''

‘‘Finally, after two or three minutes of learning to give explicit directions, they got it, ’’ said DeLap, a veteran music teacher who also plays principal bass for the symphony. The lesson wasn’t about digestion, it was about communication -- a cornerstone of music-making and the very heart of conducting.

Fleischer, who retains musical directorships with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic in New York and the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra in Arizona, is a jet-setting composer, arranger and conductor who speaks to children and adults using the same vernacular. If anything, he reserves his most irreverent side for the grown-ups, as if to drag them down forcefully, away from the rarefied air of musical snobbism. He'll toss out words like ''meter'' and ''tempo'' to children, respecting their ability to master a musical vocabulary. Then he'll turn to adults, as he did in a press release heralding the symphony's upcoming season, and toss erudition out the window.

Describing the cello duo Steven Honigberg and David Teie performing David Ott's Double Cello Concerto, an Anchorage Symphony event slated for March, Fleischer stated, ''They played the holy bejeebers out of this piece with the National Symphony.'' Ahem.

Speaking at a preconcert music lecture at Loussac Library, he described a medley he created called ''Cole Porter Fantasy.'' Initially, he was unhappy with the orchestration. ''It was not a donewellable thing, '' he said. The audience laughed. ''Oh. That's not a real word. Well, I make up my own words.''

Words are, after all, just another communications tool, like the lift of an eyebrow, the tender father-dancing-with-young-daughter stoop, the left-hand punch, the Tina Turner toss of the hair, the frenzied upward sniff -- all of them emphatic gestures Fleischer employs to direct musicians to play in an emotionally charged but technically precise way.

In earring and a mandarin collar with pin (in lieu of a bow tie) already have alerted symphony subscribers: Fleischer disdains convention. That includes limiting symphony repertoires to classical music. A fan of contemporary music, especially rock, Fleischer plans to sneak more experimental works into the arts scene in the form of ‘‘fusion’' ensemble evenings that won’t disrupt the more sober ‘‘Classic Concert’' series.

One of the fusions this spring, for example, may include a Bach cello suite accompanied by the poetry of Shakespeare, Lou Reed and even Dr. Seuss. Other experimental spring offerings will be revealed in weeks to come. ''I like surprises, '' Fleischer said. As a composer, Fleischer is an expert at mixing old and new. His piece ''Absolutely'' for rock band and chamber orchestra premiered in 1994 with guitarist Sterling Morrison, a member of the rock band The Velvet Underground.

Some Anchorage music supporters may be wary of the unfamiliar, but Fleischer plans to drag the symphony into the 21st century nonetheless. ''I'm a risk-taker, '' he said, ''but at the age of 40, I've learned to time and place my risks carefully. I will tiptoe gently into more adventurous programming until I get to the point where audiences revolt. If I've gone too far, we'll know it.''

Music education is one of the young conductor's fortÀs. He produced an award-winning interactive CD-ROM for children featuring Prokofiev's ''Peter and the Wolf.'' He developed Cool Concerts for Kids, a program used by orchestras around the United States. And in his Hudson Valley post, Fleischer increased the number of young people's concerts from four to 16. Taking cues from his wife, Heidi Joyce, a stand-up comic, performer and writer based in Los Angeles, he injects humor into everything he does. So it's no surprise that he won over DeLap's class last year.

But a tougher audience of learners and listeners awaits the ''maestro.'' (The Italian word really just means ''master'' or ''teacher.'') His patrons will be Anchorage audiences -- some sophisticated, some conservative, some downright jaded. ''You can get away with stuff in Juneau or Fairbanks that you can't possibly get away with here, '' said Valley composer and music critic Philip Munger. ''Anchorage rarely gives a standing ovation for any work written after World War I. It's a culturally challenged community in that regard.''

While audiences are scrutinizing Fleischer this season (''That hair!'' is the comment heard again and again, usually from women), he'll be scrutinizing them, trying to locate musical limits and pinpoint tastes.

He'll also be appraising his real students, not fifth-graders and family concert attendees but the 80-plus members of the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra. And what students they are: Some, including Eagle River cellist Arthur Braendel, have played with the symphony since before Fleischer was born. Some also play for Anchorage Opera and the Anchorage Concert Chorus as well as other gigs. Especially in the fall, busier musicians are booked five or six nights a week. The vast majority of them also work nonmusical jobs, arriving at rehearsals after long days working as engineers, educators or secretaries.

Second violinist Nina Bingham, 37, grew up listening to the Anchorage Symphony; her mother played viola, and her father played oboe. Nina and her sister sometimes nodded off while listening to their parents rehearse with the orchestra, only to be awakened by a loud drumroll or the crash of cymbals. Some symphony musicians play just feet away from their spouses; second violinist Dennis Berry and principal flutist Roxann Selland Berry, for example. Others have played alongside their children. The symphony is not only a community orchestra; it is, for some, a family orchestra. And like all families, it has had its share of feuds and squabbles, resentments and passions.

Beneath the inevitable tensions lie embers of artistic ambition and desire waiting for the right leader to come along and fan the flames. Most symphony musicians say their orchestra has improved vastly under the tenure of every one of its five musical directors. For a city this size, it is a disproportionately talented assemblage of musicians. But the limiting factors of geography, finance and finite talent reserves prevent the Anchorage Symphony from competing with big-city orchestras. And yet, for every musician that balances a full-time job with music practice early in the morning or late at night, there is that ember of hope.

''A regional orchestra can sound incredible with the right motivation, '' said Michael Martinson. A tuba player, he works extended days and frequent weekends as music supervisor for the Anchorage School District. Sometimes he practices his tuba until 1 or 2 a.m., long after his wife and three children have gone to bed. They've learned to sleep with the tuba booming in the background. And Martinson has learned to live with less sleep.

When he joined the Anchorage Symphony, he lived in Seward and, he estimates, commuted 7,000 miles the first year so he could play. Martinson understands the fine line between wanting to excel as a musician and simply losing the will and the energy to keep trying. ''The third level of Randy's job -- beyond his stick work, beyond his rehearsal technique -- is to drive the players to perform well, '' Martinson said. ''If our musicians can find the motivation, if they can play with all their heart and soul, we could have a phenomenal year.''


Thursday-night rehearsal, two nights before the 1999 season-opening concert:

At precisely 7:15 p.m., Fleischer marches onto the Evangeline Atwood Concert Hall stage and steps onto the podium. He briefly introduces violin virtuoso Ani Kavafian, who will be Saturday night's guest soloist. Then his baton is up and the orchestra plunges into the sweet, sorrowful notes of Barber's Violin Concerto.

Sir Georg Solti once criticized fellow conductor Leonard Bernstein for being too chummy with his musicians, who called him ''Lenny.'' Fleischer studied with Bernstein in master classes at the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts in 1989, shortly before Bernstein's death, and idolizes him. Like Bernstein, Fleischer lets musicians call him by his first name -- ''Randy, '' never ''Maestro.'' And he's done something most conductors never do: He occasionally steps off the podium and walks among the musician's chairs to locate a problem sound and correct it.

Given Fleischer's reputation and his appearance -- at this rehearsal, he is wearing black jeans and a black mock turtleneck -- one might expect him to interact with his orchestra more informally. But there's a dash of the more reserved Solti in him. With stick in hand, he is absolutely professional, even aloof.

''There was a time when I wanted to be pals and have a beer with my musicians, '' he said. ''But you can't lead people and be too familiar with them. There's a very good reason why the military prohibits fraternization. There is also a healthy distance that occurs between conductor and orchestra.''

The main thing you notice in watching Fleischer rehearse the orchestra is that he does not waste a moment. He arrives at each rehearsal with a precise itinerary of problem spots and weaknesses to be addressed. He allows the orchestra to play through a movement of the Barber concerto with only two interruptions. Then at the end -- no time for self-congratulation yet -- he announces, ''OK! OK! Now let's go back in and fix a few things.''

He dives in, measure by measure, like a surgeon doing triage. He tells some musicians that they are playing too tenuously. He directs the violins to use more bow. He demands more discipline in the execution of 16th notes. ''It's such a glorious moment, and then it gets sloppy, '' he chastises.

He conducts furiously, stabbing at the air with splayed fingers like a frustrated baker attacking mounds of dough. He shakes his glossy black hair. He stands on tiptoe, then spreads his legs wide, preparing for a demanding and triumphant musical passage. A former high school football jock who still squeezes jogging between rehearsals, he has transformed athleticism into art. The muscles of his back and shoulders flex furiously, visible beneath the thin layer of his black turtleneck.


With only two weeks of rehearsal before each of the symphony's six classic concerts this season, there is no time to mince words. In fact, when Fleischer directs the musicians to stop -- by rapping his conducting stick against his music stand or his leg -- he does not wait for the echoing strains of music to die down before making his corrections. Sometimes the music has barely died before it comes to life again. At one point during the Barber piece, as the orchestra labors to keep pace with soloist Kavafian, Fleischer's comments become acerbic. ''It's your job to be, you know musicians, '' he said. ''To follow with not just your fingers, but with your ears; to accompany her beautifully, not just to keep chugging along.''

If the musicians resist such comments, it's not apparent. Several said they feel more respected because Fleischer so evidently prepares and studies his scores before conducting them. ''Some years, our attention to details had been getting lax, '' said principal bassist DeLap. ''We're playing material we've played before, but playing it in ways we've never played it.'' But another musician said, ''Remember, this is the honeymoon period. We have it with every new conductor.''

For every correction Fleischer makes, there is a flurry of activity as string and brass and woodwind players hunch over their music stands, scribbling notes onto their scores, then the clatter of pencils dropping back on the stands as Fleischer's baton whips through the air again. With the sounds of a pausing orchestra still bouncing off the auditorium walls, he throws out snappy adjectives, quick metaphors, anything to communicate the musical effect he is seeking. Not only does he know how he wants a piece to sound, he must know how each instrument works.

''In this measure, I want the violins to take the vibrato out, to get a drier sound. But then just further on, add the vibrato back in, '' he said.

That's the technical side. But for every mechanical adjustment, there is an expressive corollary: ''It's as if you're in a dark room, '' he said, ''and somebody just opened the drapes.''

The concentration required during these rehearsals is monumental. Seven dozen faces peer up at Fleischer expectantly, 840 fingers ready to fly as soon as he lifts his baton. No one wants to botch it during the upcoming performance.

Bassist Kristin Cosgrove suffers horrible stage fright at the beginning of each concert: shaking hands, the sweats. She eats a banana before every performance -- ''a magic banana!'' she groans, embarrassed by this ritual -- because a friend told her that some vitamin or mineral in the banana would ease her anxiety. It hasn't worked, but she keeps trying.

Martinson, the only tuba player, knows that any mistake he makes -- even a single fat note out of place -- will destroy symphonic perfection.

''It only takes a split second to err, '' he said. ''And if I clam it, you'll know it. There's a lot of pressure in that.'' But he wouldn't trade his tuba for a violin. ''It's more meaningful to be the one (musical voice) than the one in 20.''

It doesn't help that Fleischer expects so much: a little more crescendo here, change that ''piano'' to ''pianissimo.'' Italian words fly all over the place. (''Piano? FortÀ? Why don't they just say 'soft' or 'loud'?'' Fleischer calls out in a moment of frivolity to ease tension.) Or perhaps the opposite is true: It helps immensely that Fleischer expects so much.

''It's a matter of trust, '' principal cellist Linda Hart Ottum said. ''Everything he's done so far has been great, so we keep trusting him. In the beginning, I felt tentative because I really liked George Hanson. But Randy just slid right in. The transition has been a good one.''

To understand how far Fleischer may bring the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, it helps to know how far it already has come. The Anchorage Little Symphony was established in 1946 with 17 musicians. Many were active in the military and could be called away at a moment’s notice. In 1949, four out of five woodwind players were from Fort Richardson.


By 1960, the orchestra had blossomed into an ensemble of 45 musicians. Performances were held in the West High School auditorium. Bassist DeLap joined at the end of the decade, in 1969. For the first year, programs referred to her as ''Marvin DeLap.'' No one seemed to notice the error.

''There wasn't a very high standard, '' DeLap recalled. ''People were getting together because of their love of the music only and wanting to share it. But the commitment wasn't there. We'd rehearse, but then we'd come to the next rehearsal and it was like going back to the very beginning.''

DeLap, who played with the Wichita Symphony in Kansas before moving to Alaska, looked forward to the day when Anchorage's orchestra would rival her hometown orchestra and surpass it. She waited a long time, watching the symphony evolve under each music director: fracturing when musicians were pitted against each other, healing and unifying, moving ahead as musicians dedicated themselves more intensely.

In the Lower 48, orchestras can improve by pulling in more talented musicians and paying them accordingly. But the Anchorage Symphony, with few exceptions, has had to grow from within. Every year it demands more of its players, most of whom moved to Alaska for nonmusical reasons. Symphony pay covers little more than the cost of gas and baby-sitting, musicians say.

Audiences in Anchorage and outlying areas had to evolve, too. A brief history of the symphony, published in 1996 in celebration of its 50th anniversary, tells this funny story:

In 1974, a $10,000 grant made it possible for the orchestra to perform in Kenai, Homer and Kodiak. ''The full orchestra had set up in the (Kenai) auditorium and was ready to perform, '' recalled symphony veteran Kurt Pasch. ''They were just waiting for the audience to show up. By 8:10 p.m. the audience consisted of the bus driver, an orchestra member's wife and one Kenai family. Just as the concert began, a member of the family stood up and said, 'Excuse me, but this isn't the wrestling match, is it?' It was later reported that the bus driver and the wife enjoyed the concert tremendously.''


The Classic Concert series now has more than 1,300 subscribers each year; the Oct. 9 concert was sold out. The oil boom gave audiences a place to enjoy music in style. The performing arts center was completed in 1988. Its acoustics are considered world-class.

Since the symphony's first music director, Maurice Dubonnet, vacated his post in 1981, the orchestra has had a revolving-door cadre of directors. Most have used the position as a steppingstone to larger orchestras. ''By the time a conductor is ready to move on, it's usually good for him and good for us, '' said concertmaster and principal violinist Kathryn Hoffer.

Isaiah Jackson shook up the orchestra in 1982 and 1983, alienating many players with his ambitions to import musical talent from Outside. David Loebel led the Anchorage Symphony from 1983 to 1987. He auditioned the entire orchestra, allowing players to compete for their chairs. That instigated rivalry, musicians said, but also raised the level of commitment because musicians could lose their chairs if they didn't prepare and perform well. Stephen Stein conducted from 1987 to 1993, pushing the orchestra to master a more challenging repertoire. Some musicians remembered him as demanding and inspiring; others called him abrasive. George Hanson inherited a greatly improved orchestra in 1994 and continued to refine its talents until this year, when he moved to a more prominent post with the orchestra and opera company in Wuppertal, Germany. None of the conductors completed his tenure without some tension or conflict.

''Music and egos go together. There is a lot of pushing and pulling of little egos and personalities. The conductor has to be a mediator, '' said Martinson, the tuba player. ''Randy is socially intelligent. He is savvy at person-to-person relationships.'' Some Anchorage Symphony musicians have been around so long -- losing and regaining their chairs over the years -- that they resist the raised expectations of a new maestro. But Fleischer isn't willing to give up on them.

''Under the shell of the crustiest, most cynical musician, '' he said, ''beats the heart of a 9-year-old kid who realized one day that he loved music and wanted to dedicate himself to it for the rest of his life. We're all just big 9-year-olds at heart. That's who I'm trying to reach.''

While the symphony was conducting a worldwide search for a new conductor, some Alaskans asked for a director who would have more direct ties to the community. But musicians and audiences also crave the energy, quality and connections of a nonresident, national-caliber conductor. In Fleischer, the orchestra may have found both. He will commute to Anchorage from his apartment in Los Angeles (and his orchestras in Arizona and New York). But his interest in outreach and artistic fusion promises to keep him in Anchorage often.

''I sense that he wants to be more a part of the community than Hanson ever did, '' said Valley composer Munger. ''He is more interested in supporting and being part of the Alaska art culture.''

Don't expect Fleischer to be seduced by the Alaska lifestyle, however. In fact, there are signs that he may not quite understand us. Over lunch recently, while discussing why Americans don't embrace classical music as readily as Europeans, Fleischer pointed out that we were, until just a generation or so, a nation of pioneers. ''We're a Paul Bunyan culture, '' he said. ''Really! There were people living in log cabins very recently -- less than 100 years ago.''

Log cabins? A century ago? You don't say. At a preconcert lecture, an audience member asked Fleischer if he'd hiked here yet -- evidence that Alaskans like visitors to be like them, to embrace the outdoors. But Fleischer made few promises.

''I'm a total wuss, '' he said with pride. ''So far I've lived in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Drive-by shootings don't scare me. Gang violence doesn't scare me. Muggings don't scare me. Bears scare the hell out of me. I can't bribe a bear. Camping? Forget it.''

If it's surprising that this dedicated urbanite committed himself to a three-year contract in Alaska, it's just as surprising that he became a conductor in the first place.

Born in Canton, Ohio, Fleischer grew up surrounded by rhythm. His father, a shoe store owner, also worked as a big-band drummer and symphony percussionist. Fleischer claims not to have perfect pitch, unlike his comedian wife, who also earned a degree in music. But he inherited a strong sense of beat. He resisted music at first, preferring basketball and football to piano lessons. But after being persuaded by his mother to join a high school choir, Fleischer was hooked. He sang leads in school musicals while listening to popular music at home. ''I grew up with Sinatra and Aerosmith, not Brahms, '' he said.

Fleischer attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music with the goal of becoming a high school choir director. Sophomores were required to complete a course in conducting. If it hadn't been a requirement, he wouldn't have taken it, he said. And yet the class -- and an instructor who recognized Fleischer's talent for conducting -- changed his life. In his junior year, Fleischer conducted the school orchestra in a performance of ''A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.'' ''It was an inauspicious beginning, '' Fleischer said. ''It's a silly, bawdy show with scantily clad women running around -- not exactly the Brahms Requiem.''

But being at the center of all that music was more exciting than anything Fleischer had known: ''I didn't know how I was going to get there, but I knew I would become a conductor.'' From that time, Fleischer's list of credentials is a steady drumbeat of accomplishments: A master's degree in music from the Indiana University. A job as assistant conductor of the American Symphony in New York City from 1986 to 1989. Master classes with conductors Seiji Ozawa, Ricardo Muti and others. In 1990, he toured Japan and the Soviet Union with the National Symphony Orchestra, leading the Dvorak Cello Concerto with then-music director Mstislav Rostropovich as soloist. Two years later, Fleischer conducted an ensemble of more than 70 cellists, including Yo-Yo Ma, in a tribute to Rostropovich. Fleischer made his operatic conducting debut in 1992 in a production of ''Manon'' by the Washington Summer Opera. He later conducted ''Madame Butterfly'' and ''La Traviata'' with the same company and ''The Magic Flute'' and ''The Mikado'' with the New York City Opera. In addition to his current New York and Arizona directorships, he has guest-conducted all over the country.

Fleischer's first taste of Alaska came in 1992 when he toured here with the National Symphony Orchestra. He and Heidi liked what they saw: a small city with bookstores and restaurants and culture. A place with potential. Last year, Fleischer competed with a pool of 200 applicants for the job of music director, including three candidates who performed as Anchorage Symphony guest conductors.

Fleischer travels 30 weeks a year, every week enduring flight cancellations, missed planes and red-eye flights. After a cancellation recently, he avoided missing a rehearsal only by calling the local symphony office from Seattle and urging workers to find some Alaska Airlines bigwig and music lover who would help him out of the mess. They did. A vacant seat on another flight magically opened. He grabbed it. And the orchestra played on.

Fleischer talks fast. He checks his watch often. He refers frequently and fondly to his wife, guardian of home base in L.A., with whom he debriefs each night on the phone for two hours or more. They manage to work together on some projects. Hers: a CD featuring female comedians called ''Stand-Up Against Domestic Violence, '' which he will help produce. His: the interactive Young People's Concert series, which Heidi will help script this spring. And theirs: They are expecting their first child in late April.

But before then, there will be concerts: Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky and Beethoven on Jan. 15; Liszt and Franck in February; Debussy, Ott and Brahms in March; and Ives, Haydn and Rachmaninoff in April. (Guest conductor Christopher Wilkins will lead the Anchorage Symphony on Nov. 6 in works by Resphigi, Foss and Sibelius.)

The Oct. 9 concert began with Tchaikovsky’s ‘‘Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, ’' a piece both accessible and familiar. The audience responded warmly but seemed to be waiting, expecting more.

Next came soloist Kavafian. She, too, was applauded eagerly, even if the audience didn't give the renowned artist her full due for mastering a piece as challenging as the Barber Violin Concerto. Throughout the concerto, Fleischer made frequent eye contact with Kavafian. He crouched and turned slightly to observe her cues and struggled to keep the orchestra from overwhelming the soloist. Music critics might have noted the orchestra's occasional stumbles as it tried to keep up with a virtuoso playing more than a hundred measures of lightning-quick notes without rest. But a more sympathetic eye would have noticed something entirely different. Where he could have conducted with flash, Fleischer conducted with humility; even his body language spoke of a tender respect for Kavafian and the piece she was playing. He shunned flamboyance in favor of intimate communication between orchestra and soloist, soloist and audience.

At evening's end, the rousing and raucous ''Pictures at an Exhibition'' (by Mussorgsky, with orchestration by Ravel) finally allowed Fleischer to stand tall and conduct with greater animation. By now, the orchestra had come to life; perhaps the players were even enjoying themselves. Martinson had survived his tuba solo, and bassist Cosgrove had quelled the flutters in her stomach, which usually disappear by intermission. Cellist Ottum's morning practices (she does her most concentrated work after her children have headed to school) had paid off. So had Martinson's late-night serenades to a sleeping family. All those hours of practice and sacrifice had been reduced to this: minutes of stardom on a single Saturday night. Fleischer stole none of it from them; he only caught it, magnified it and turned it back on the players.

At his most fervent moments, Fleischer led each clash of the cymbals with a triumphant, open-fingered gesture of his left hand, as if he were throwing sound at the percussion section. The response from the percussionists, a critic wrote in the Daily News, was ''teeth-chilling resonance.'' And the response from the audience was a standing ovation.

In the end, what brought the audience to its feet with whistles and shouts of ‘‘bravo’' was not perfection. It was passion. The audience had come to hear the classics and to see a slick new conductor whose appearance screams L.A. instead of Alaska: hair flying, smile mischievous, posture occasionally cocky. What the audience saw, in the end, was not an overpolished performer from sunnier shores, but a maestro on fire, in love with the music and eager to share it.