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Year in music: Alaska heard 'round the world

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 25, 2014

One of my first assignments at the Anchorage Daily News some 20 years ago involved writing about a Fairbanks drummer who was experimenting with avant-garde music informed by recorded natural sounds, mathematical formulas and ecological implications.

This year John Luther Adams won the Pulitzer Prize in music.

Though he now lives in New York City, his selection, the latest in a string of major national awards, was a point of pride among Alaskans.

It was said that the winning composition, "Become Ocean," a 40-minute cosmos of sound for three orchestras, had its genesis with "Dark Waves," a short piece premiered by the Anchorage Symphony in 2007. I'm not sure I get a direct connection, but Adams' music may be generally sorted into two categories: the noisy, heavily percussive pieces and the more atmospheric, dreamy and even melodic works. Both "Dark Waves" and "Become Ocean" fall into the second group.

Adams is rightly esteemed for his concert music by connoisseurs. But he has also attained something like international cult status among a large following of people who don't tend to go to concert halls for big outdoor sonic assemblages. These include "Inuksuit" and "Sila: The Breath of the World." The most recent work for an outdoor environment is "Ten Thousand Birds," which premiered in St. Louis in October.

The recording of "Become Ocean" has been nominated for three Grammy awards and named iTunes Classical Album of the Year.

The most interesting Alaska premiere this year was an opera by another Fairbanksan, Emerson Eads, a former student of Adams with a very different style. Opera Fairbanks staged his "Color of Gold" in March. The libretto by Cassandra Tilly was mainly a series of gold-rush-era scenes with little in the way of plot or character. But Eads' music -- particularly the lovely opening and funeral chorus -- made for good listening and the local cast did a terrific job with their parts.

Also in Fairbanks, the International Piano-e-Competition brought a raft of fine pianists to the UAF campus in July. The contest was unusual in a couple of ways. There was a round in which each performer had to play one of Schubert's sonatas, some of the most delicate and introspective piano music around. This was intended to show what they could do apart from the pyrotechnics that often fill such events. Crowds were small, but the competition was heard in real time around the world in concert halls, showrooms, studios and even some private homes by Yamaha digital pianos that were connected to one another via the Internet.

Peter Friis Johansson won the gold medal and the cash prize of $30,000. His victory was followed by a performance of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto, also available on the Web, that was one of the best things heard in Alaska ever. Contest organizer and UAF professor Eduard Zilberkant, who conducted the orchestra, is someone to watch.

My favorite concert in Anchorage was an all-Wagner program by the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, especially the last half, which was dedicated to excerpts from "Tristan und Isolde." Guest artists were tenor Ric Furman and soprano Kelly Cae Hogan. The score, which I found unspeakably beautiful and moving, gave several players the opportunity for expressive solos.

Not everyone was pleased. One reader from out of town lamented making the long drive for a concert of music she didn't care for. She would have preferred something along the lines of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Her wish will be granted in the spring when the ASO will in fact do the Ninth. Again. Twice. Enjoy.

The biggest surprise -- not entirely unanticipated -- came in May when local pianist Freya Wardlaw-Bailey soloed on short notice in the Second Piano Concerto of Dmitri Shostakovich with the Anchorage Civic Orchestra. Wardlaw-Bailey gave a precise and electrifying performance on par with most of the big-name touring pianists we've heard here lately.

The ACO has been showing considerable improvement over the past several concerts, the strings gaining notable strength and unity. Keep it up.

A new custom-built acoustic shell debuted in Atwood Concert Hall this fall. In theory it will enhance both the listening experience in the seats and help the musicians on stage better hear one another. So far I'm not sure that I'm hearing a huge difference, but I believe there is something like a warmer, possibly more robust sound.

The device is still going through a shake-down period and as I have the opportunity to catch concerts from different spots in the hall, the benefits may be more evident. The next chance will come on Jan. 31, when Randall Craig Fleischer leads the group in Mahler's massive Fifth Symphony. When last they did it, in 1999, the old shell was in place and the Mahler may serve as something of an acid test.

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