By Mike Dunham
Anchorage Daily News
The high school auditorium in Kenai hosted a concert on Saturday night that any major musical organization would consider ambitious. The world’s pluckiest orchestra — rehearsals can require driving a couple of hundred miles on remote Alaska roads — and most casual audience — bib overalls were not out of place — were the first people on the planet to play and hear “An Alaskan Symphony” by Los Angeles composer Adrienne Albert.
That “first people on the planet” observation came from pre-concert remarks by Mark Robinson, who led the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra, Kenai Peninsula Community Chorus and Homer High School Concert Choir — about 200 performers — in the premiere.
Robinson described the three movements of the half-hour long piece as depicting the natural beauty of the Peninsula, “One ‘wow’ scene after another,” the animals and, finally, the human community; he noted that the Kenai is still a place where, if your car breaks down on one of those lonely highways, even neighbors who despise your politics or religion will drop everything and come to your aid.
The orchestra has worked hard on the music, which Albert wrote over several visits to the area as part of a grant from the American Composers Forum. The first movement, “Facing the Elements,” sounded much more concise and convincing this time than it did last summer, when the orchestra played it as a stand-alone piece.
The music begins with a wind/surf sound effect and low drone. From this emerges a majestic theme evocative of the glory of Alaska mountains, glaciers and wide-open spaces, which builds to a blazing major key climax.
“Animalogy” is a set for wind quintet alone. The five instruments entered from various points around the auditorium making noises suggestive of chittering and twittering of small wild life — or maybe the horn is a moose — before taking seats onstage and launching into a more or less traditionally playful scherzo. It may have Disneyized the Kenai’s critters, but it was also the clearest writing and most challenging listening in the Symphony, without the obvious melodic thrust of the outer movements.
The choirs entered for the finale, “A Place Called Home,” which began with Orthodox chanting accompanied by bells and string quartet, a deployment paralleling “The 1812 Overture.” The evident intent was to acknowledge the city of Kenai’s origins as a Russian redoubt more than 200 years ago.
The pious hymn was soon supplanted by a familiar fiddle hoe-down riff. If this Appalachian affectation was intended to refer to Peninsula pioneers, it was jarringly out-of-place, and we chat about that further in the comment section.
Historically incongruities aside, Albert uses the fiddle-dance riff to create the main theme of the finale, a fetching and readily-singable anthem about coming together and helping each other “in this place we call home.” The other words were lost in the mist of choral enunciation; the most delightful passage was when the singers dropped words and sang a beautiful section on open vowels.
The audience responded heartily. I expect the piece may receive more performances around the state in the future.
The program opened with Schubert’s Mass in G Major and ended with Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, featuring three fine soloists: violinist Linda Rosenthal, cellist Andrew Cook and pianist Maria Alleson. After a tentative introduction, the orchestra rose to the occasion and sounded as good as I’ve ever heard them.