To anyone who associates symphonies with fancy attire and high-brow stuffiness, the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra comes as something of a surprise. After all, their performances feature everything from electric violin solos to whale noises to indoor fireworks to Alaska Native song and dance. At October's crowd-pleasing Disney Pops concert, half the audience members were still in grade school, singing along in tiaras and costumes based on the movie "Frozen."
It's not your typical symphony. And that's exactly how Randall Craig Fleischer wants it.
Now in his 17th season as conductor and musical director of the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, Fleischer — working closely with longtime Executive Director Sherri Reddick — has created a cultural powerhouse for Alaska that is innovative, accessible and always a bit unpredictable.
A maestro is made
Fleischer grew up in Canton, Ohio, taking piano lessons from a young age, though his real interest in classical music came from singing in the high school choir. "I just loved the emotionality of it," Fleischer said. "The excitement, the grandeur. It just put a tingle up my spine."
He blossomed as a musician at Oberlin College, and as a music education major, the plan was to teach. Two years in, however, Fleischer took a conducting class because it was a degree requirement. "I fell in love with being at the center of all that music, and by my junior year, I knew I wanted to be a conductor," he said.
While pursuing a master's degree at Indiana University, Fleischer chose to focus on orchestral conducting. "With instruments, there's a certain abstraction to the drama," Fleischer said. "It's almost pure emotion. Working with musicians who get to the heart and soul of it, who try to find the essence of it deeper and deeper, that's always what drew me."
Heart and soul — that human drama is at the center of Fleischer's conducting. With each piece, he asks himself, "What aspect of human experience is being represented here?"
Fleischer thinks back to 1990, when, as an associate conductor of the national symphony orchestra, he traveled with world-acclaimed cellist and activist Mstislav Rostropovich back to Russia for Rostropovich's first time in 18 years. "That was an all-encompassing human drama," Fleischer said. "Rostropovich's exile, the fall of Communism, the courage he exhibited, the utter hysteria we had to face and embrace when he came back. And then to make music with that man; I've never come close to replicating that experience."
Fleischer's list of other accomplishments is long — from conducting a cello ensemble that included Yo-Yo Ma ("I haven't seen Yo-Yo since," Fleischer said with a slight shrug), to conducting a private concert for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican ("Even for a Jewish-American conductor, it was quite an honor"), to launching a series of popular Young People's Concerts around the country to get youths excited about classical music.
Music in the Far North
Flash-forward several decades and Fleischer now conducts three orchestras scattered across the country: the Hudson Valley Philharmonic in New York, Youngstown Symphony in Ohio and the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra in Alaska, with about 80 tenured musicians in each.
"My schedule is a little frantic," Fleischer conceded. Based out of Los Angeles, he's in Anchorage 10-12 weeks a year, broken up in chunks to correspond with Anchorage Symphony concerts. In between, he's home for a day here and there before jetting off to his other orchestras and taking the occasional guest conducting gig with renowned international symphonies. The tempo is prestissimo. The way Fleischer views it, somebody, somewhere needs something from him every single day.
Fleischer first came to Alaska on tour with the National Symphony Orchestra. He enjoyed Anchorage's people, beautiful scenery and the "positive vibe" he felt. When the conductor job opened up, he applied. Meanwhile, Reddick remembered Fleischer during the conductor search, specifically his concerts for youths. "He was super high energy, and it was great to see the kids so engaged and excited," Reddick said. Fleischer introduced these concerts to ASO, and they have since become a mainstay with more than 7,000 local students attending each season.
Fleischer puts the Young People's Concerts together with his wife, Heidi, a professional comedian. "Our concerts for kids are funny and very interactive," Fleischer said. "They include solid principles of music education brought into the concert hall, but in a hip, contemporary way." At a time when other symphony orchestras have cut youth programming, Fleischer has prioritized it.
Over the last 17 years, Fleischer has also introduced more collaborative projects to Anchorage.
"Collaboration has become such a part of what we do now," Reddick said. In fact, the symphony's list of collaborators reads like a catalog of other cultural organizations in town: the Anchorage Concert Association, Anchorage Opera, Cyrano's Theatre Company, the Anchorage Museum, high school concert choirs, the Alaska Native Heritage Center, local filmmakers and more.
"We always think, 'Let's do this, but who else might we involve?'" Reddick explained. "We're artists in a community creating art for that community, and it's great to be able to do that with other artists."
With innovation, Fleischer acknowledges that nothing can please everybody. Some people don't like "new music," others don't like multimedia. "However, one of the things that I love about Anchorage is that even the people who have criticized me for the different, innovative things we've done agree that we have to do 'something' to bring new people to the concert hall," Fleischer said. "They just don't always agree on exactly what that 'something' is."
Still, now there are more and more programs where ASO is able to push the envelope, everything from introducing Silent Film Night where the orchestra plays live music behind the screening of a classic silent film, to incorporating ballet, to a concert one year with the "1812 Overture," complete with indoor fireworks and lasers.
In turn, Fleischer notes that Alaskans have come to embrace the freshness. "They still want to hear Brahms and Beethoven and the standards, but they've developed appetites for some cool, innovative things, too," Fleischer said. Silent Film Night, now a tradition going on its 10th year, sells out every time. The next edition, on Jan. 9, features Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights," which began the series a decade ago.
Creating new works: Musica Nova
Eleven years ago, Fleischer and Reddick dreamed up a bold new idea: Musica Nova, a commissioning club, where members could combine their money to commission a modern composer to write a new piece to premiere in Anchorage.
Brian Hoefler has been a member of Musica Nova since it began in 2004, and he remembers Fleischer's pitch. "He told us that new music keeps the classical repertoire fresh," Hoefler said. "You can play the standards from hundreds of years ago, but the new music is the artistic commentary on your own generation."
Randy presents the composer a rough idea, and by the time the piece has been composed, the anticipation has built. Club members are invited to a reception dinner with the composer and soloist to hear about the creative process. "It makes you feel good that you're contributing to the repertoire, that you have a little piece of the action," Hoefler said.
Renowned jazz musician Chris Brubeck, son of noted jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, has twice been commissioned by Anchorage and views the clubs as a "win-win" scenario for everyone. "Classical music is given another transfusion to help keep the orchestral institution alive with a shot of current culture from a living composer," he said on his blog.
Brubeck was commissioned most recently for "Travels in Time for Three," an eclectically spectacular string trio piece that premiered in Anchorage before visiting several international venues. "It was really thrilling to see the audience of the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra and the community get so excited about a new piece coming into the world," Brubeck said. "Randy and Sherri have helped to create a cultural climate where new music is anticipated rather than feared."
A fresh look: fusion music
Outside of conducting, Fleischer is a composer, as well as a pioneer in symphonic rock and the fusion with world music.
"Each project is its own personal adventure," Fleischer said. For instance, a current project, "Rocktopia the Musical," is a fusion program that takes iconic opera arias and orchestral melodies and fuses them with rock 'n' roll songs. "Purple Haze" meshes with excerpts from Stravinsky's "Rites of Spring." Handel with Journey, Led Zeppelin with Puccini.
Fleischer has also composed several Native American pieces, such as "Echoes," a multimedia, multicultural symphonic piece that tells the story of the 18th and 19th century whaling industry by combining the indigenous song and dance of Alaska, Hawaii and Native America with an orchestra. It was commissioned by the Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations (ECHO) consortium, which included Alaska's Native Heritage Center and Inupiat Heritage Center as well as organizations in Hawaii and Massachusetts.
Steven Alvarez, the director of arts and education for the Alaska Native Heritage Center at the time, first conceived the idea of a symphony to unite the three regions in imagery and sound. "Storytelling is an important part of the indigenous cultures of our country," Alvarez said. "It is also a big part of the sea shanties that were, and still are, composed by the whalers and merchant marines."
Fleischer's research included travel to Massachusetts, Hawaii and around Alaska, and a full immersion in indigenous songs and dance. He asked questions, sang, danced, recorded. And then he wrote the piece.
The result? A huge, stunning spectacle weaving individual stories from each culture into a larger piece, including Alaskan and Hawaiian Native dancers, sea shanty singers, video imagery and a whole symphony in back. It's a piece that extends beyond the performance hall.
"'Echoes' communicates that cultures that are very different from each other can work together, can find ways to promote culture and also promote other cultures," Alvarez said. "Living in a city like Anchorage where we have such great diversity, it's important to find ways to collaborate and find ways to share."
Come one, come all
Ultimately, Fleischer's goal is to extend the traditional audience. "We don't need another symphony," he said, "but we could use works that will build bridges to other works, to genres and community who don't necessarily regularly participate." The Anchorage Symphony is working to increase accessibility through initiatives like free concerts at local churches and free or reduced-price tickets offered to various social service agencies.
There's been progress. In fact, one of the things that astonished Chris Brubeck most during his Anchorage performance was the audience. "They were not mostly 70 and up," Brubeck reflected. "What a rare and refreshing sight! Urban professionals, 25-50, young families, people on 'dates,' high school kids who are probably budding musicians, regular Joes, and well-behaved children, and of course some well-behaved grandparents too. Somehow in Alaska, the orchestra is not simply an institution for the elder, elite, upper-economic crust."
To Fleischer, that's good, but it's not enough. There are still more people out there. So his message to all listeners? "If you love music, try the symphony," Fleischer said. "Ignore the stereotypes. It's just music. Don't worry about what to wear or when to applaud. Wear your jeans. If you love music, there's a high likelihood you will love symphonic music. It's pure emotion in sound. It's the original, unplugged."
Elissa Brown is an Anchorage freelance writer.