By Mike Dunham
Philip Munger’s latest symphony, “Hindu Kush,” combines powerful content and serious compositional structure with compelling, attractive sound. The piece, which received its premiere on Friday night from the Anchorage Civic Orchestra, may be his best work to date.
“Hindu Kush” reflects the composer’s contemplation about the intractable animosities in that troubled region, which stretches from northern India through Pakistan and into Afghanistan. Understandably, its tone is mostly somber.
The first movement, “Bamyan Voids,” refers to the destruction of the great Buddha statues in Afghanistan by the Taliban. It begins with three strikes on the tubular bells suggestive of funereal church bells or the temple bells sometimes used in Buddhist ceremonies. The music begins with ominous slowness, speeding up, growing more massive and weighty until the smashing of two gongs — perhaps standing in for the explosions used to blow up the ancient statues — signals the climax. After a brief calming, the three bells are heard again.
The second movement, “Women’s Ghazal,” lets a little sky show through with a plaintive, longing tune that hints at hope. It contrasts with a dance, interrupted by some brutal brass passages. In pre-performance remarks, Munger acknowledged that he used various songs by Afghan women here.
The first theme of the second movement becomes a ground bass for a series of variations in the third, “War Dirge.” But the initial harsh statement of the theme by the brass leaves it devoid of the hope heard in the original. The seamless passacaglia reaches its peak in a glowing major key iteration that leaves the hearer breathless before dissolving into a quiet but unsettling variation for English horn.
The finale, “Peace Prayer,” is based on a tune recorded in Kashmir. In contrast with the other three movements, it’s a cheerful melody with a second section that’s positively uplifting, a near cousin to certain old American folk hymns, like “Simple Gifts” or contemporary hymnist Marty Haugen's more recent "All Are Welcome."
The ready accessibility of this very singable song makes it easy to follow Munger’s variations, which maintain a dance-like quality before the contemplative bells ring for a final time to close the symphony.
One can find similarities in this final movement to Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” as one may liken the second movement to part of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. However, Munger’s orchestral ideas are clearly his own and he deploys them in service to the music, not as sound effects for their own sake. His skill in organizing the material in this case is equal to what we hear in the Bartok and of more substance and thoughtfullness than in the Copland.
The audience — some of whom had been trying to applaud since the end of the first movement — gave a standing and shouting ovation and called the composer, who was also the conductor for the concert, back for three bows.
Though “Hindu Kush” was the only world premiere on the program, it was reported that the first half of the program consisted of Alaska premieres for Schubert’s Overture to “Rosamunde,” Liszt’s symphonic poem “Orpheus” and the Violin Concerto of Alexander Glazunov.
The orchestra that played Munger’s symphony magnificently performed shakily in these pieces. While the brass was solid and the winds were good (the oboe/English horn trio of players particularly stood out), the upper strings had disconcerting trouble with intonation. So did Walter Olivares, the soloist in the Glazunov.
In fact as intermission came on, I realized I was getting a fever and the symptoms of a cold. I wondered if getting to bed and pills quickly wouldn’t be more prudent than sticking it out in Sydney Laurence Theatre for a new 40 minute symphony.
Thirty seconds into “Hindu Kush” I congratulated myself on deciding to stay.
Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.