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ArtBeat: Atwood acoustic shell comes to life

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published October 9, 2014

Atwood Concert Hall's new custom-made acoustic shell debuted with mixed but generally happy results on Sept. 27. The season-opening concert by the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra indicated that fine-tuning the handsome wood back wall and top is still a work in progress.

Conductor Randall Craig Fleischer admitted as much when he addressed the audience at the start of the evening and noted how he had rearranged the sections. The horns were positioned behind the second violins. The basses stood in a line on risers behind the winds. Cellos and violas had switched places, with the violas now closest to the edge of the stage to the conductor's right.

This worked well in the first piece, Tchaikovsky's "Marche Slave," in which the violas have the initial statement of the main theme. The different orchestral choirs were distinct and bright. The sound in the balcony seemed to emanate from an invisible planet in front of us and fill the hall evenly. I counted a sumptuous second-and-a-half reverberation from my seat near the back wall. There was a visceral feel to the basses and the shell was particularly beneficial to the violins.

It was less helpful to the soloist in Rachmaninoff's First Piano Concerto. Admittedly, this is a student work that may best be reserved for student concerts, but if anyone could make the argument for the concerto's significance, it is probably Olga Kern, whose previous Anchorage performances have been nothing less than stunning.

On Saturday, the piano was positioned at the edge of the stage elevator most distant from the audience, just outside the shell. One saw Kern's arms in motion but, in many cases, didn't hear the sound, or not much of it. One had to wait for the solos to hear her technique, the distinct spinning out of each interwoven melodic line in the Celtic knot of Rachmaninovian counterpoint. But when accompanied by the shell-enhanced orchestra, the piano sounded muffled. Even her encore, the fourth of Rachmaninoff's "Moments Musicaux," gave the impression that someone had stuffed a blanket into the soundboard.

In contrast, the details of the orchestral instruments, like a brief trumpet obligato in the slow movement, were clearly distinguished. When Kern played the first Shostakovich and third Rachmaninoff concertos here, audiences listened in breathless silence. This time one heard more shuffling, throat-clearing, rustling of pages -- all signs of listener tedium. Some of that may be due to the composition itself, but an unexciting piano sound surely contributed.

The enhancements of the new shell were particularly welcome in Sibelius' Second Symphony, which bounces between full-throated lushness and introspective sectional or solo elements. Each pluck in the long pizzicato bass passage that opens the second movement was plainly audible. In other parts, however, sloppy entries left the impression that the musicians weren't all hearing one another. Though the trumpet solos were good, the brass ensembles fell short of the mark.

Fleischer took the start of the third movement perhaps faster than the players could accommodate. But otherwise, from the first movement on, he tended to go for a moderately slow tempo, the better to ruminate over the profusion of melodic hooks that fill this score. His approach brought out nuances but ran the risk of shortchanging the overall architecture. The finale, though strong, fell short of reaching the climax one hopes for. The highs had already been hit.

And it was getting late -- 10 p.m. before the finale began its long, inexorable build-up, another 15 minutes before the crowning chords. The traditions of playing the national anthem and "Alaska's Flag" and Bach's "Air on the G String" (in tribute to the late cellist Beth Leffingwell) at the start of the program had contributed to the length of the evening.

Nonetheless, people I spoke with were excited about what they heard, apart from the general consensus that the piano had not been well served; it wasn't just those of us in the balcony who noticed it. They used words like "present" and "crisp" to describe the sound of the orchestra. It will take some time to figure out how best to use the shell to showcase the musicians at their best, but the potential is there.

Football and religion

"God on Our Side," a work in progress by Tom Moran of Fairbanks, will receive a staged reading with audience feedback at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday at Anchorage Community Theatre, 1133 E. 70th Ave. Moran's previous work has included "The Wheelman," about a bicyclist in the gold rush, seen at the Anchorage Museum in 2010, and "The Big Guy," a monologue presented at ACT in 2011 as part of the "Fourplay" series, which presented Godzilla splitting his time between destroying Tokyo and ruminating on life.

The new work is about an atheist football quarterback who, after an injury, is replaced by a born-again backup who leads the team to "a string of improbable victories" leading to soul- (or whatever-) searching and a thirst for vindication. It's a one-time-only event and is pay-what-you-can. However, reservations are required; call 868-4913. As of press time, about half the available seats were already spoken for.

ACT is also presenting the classic "Bell, Book and Candle," a hit comedy that led to the long-running "Bewitched" television series and all subsequent imitators. Shows are at 7 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 2. Theatergoers are invited to come in costume for the performance on Halloween.

Also at ACT, magician Don Russell will read from his book "The Curse of the Bloody Paw" with a bit of magic tossed in at 11 a.m. on Saturday. The press release cautions that this is "not aimed for your itty-bitty children." Admission is by donation.

Annia’s swan song?

Also on stage right now is "Hedda Gabler" at Cyrano's, in a contemporary translation by Jon Robin Baitz, a veteran of the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez. It's said that this will be the final Anchorage performance by Annia Wyndham (in the title role) before she moves back to Sweden. In the past five years, Wyndham has created some of the best Anchorage theater we can remember, including major parts in ACT's "Inspecting Carol" (2011), TossPot's "A Gulag Mouse" and Perseverance's "God of Carnage" (both 2013).

The cast includes veterans David Haynes, Jill Sowerwine and Aaron Wiseman. The Sons of Norway -- whose Norwegian Viking Team will be defending their BizBee crown this weekend -- will help supply refreshments on Friday night (Oct. 11) in honor of "Hedda's" author, Norwegian Henrik Ibsen.

‘Bogeyman’ in New York

While we're on the topic of theater, "Stalking the Bogeyman," a play based on award-winning Alaska author David Holthouse's essay about his search for his sexual abuser, debuted at New Stages in New York City last month. Reviews in The New York Times and elsewhere have been positive. Though the play is off-Broadway, the cast includes several Broadway stars, including Tony Award nominees Roxanne Hart and John Herrera. The play was first presented by the NC Stage Company in Asheville, North Carolina, last year.

Writing fellowships awarded

As we wind up Book Week, the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation, in partnership with the Alaska State Council on the Arts (ASCA), has announced the selection of five writers who are receiving the new annual Alaska Literary Awards. The awards are sponsored by Alaska Writer Laureate Peggy Shumaker and her husband Joe Usibelli and are open to any Alaska writer over the age of 18. Each fellowship comes with a $5,000 prize. The five chosen for this inaugural round are Ernestine Hayes, Erin Hollowell, Joan Kane, Susanna Mishler and Frank Soos.

Tributes to Marvell

Disc jockey Reggie Ward tells Alaska Dispatch News that he plans two tributes on two different radio stations to Marvell Johnson, the longtime Anchorage radio host killed earlier this week. Ward will present the first of the two on his own show, starting at 10 p.m. Friday on KNBA and the second at 10 p.m. on Saturday on KSKA, when he takes the microphone on "Soul to Soul," the program Johnson hosted for decades.

New email

Readers who have found their emails to not going through are advised that a new email address has been established here at Alaska Dispatch News,, as noted below. I know, the type is small and easy to miss.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

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