By MIKE DUNHAM
Several points of interest drew me to the Anchorage Civic Orchestra concert on Saturday, foremost the debut of a new work by Lee Wilkins titled, “The American 1812 Overture.” It turned out to be not new but a pastiche of pre-existing material, notably Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” a favorite at Fourth of July celebrations largely, one suspects, because fireworks can be coordinated with the cannon blasts in the score. Otherwise, as Wilkins noted, one might be baffled as to how the defeat of Napoleon by the Russians had anything to do with America’s independence.
What Wilkins did was take Tchaikovsky’s score and strip it of all the Russian and French patriotic or folk tunes he used. You might be surprised at how little of Tchaikovsky remains — notably the memorable quickstep once used to advertise a breakfast cereal alleged to be “shot from guns.”
In their place, Wilkins inserted American and English songs, several of which, like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” date from after either the American revolution or the War of 1812. He then copied the style, instrumentation and mood of each chunk of the Tchaikovsky as he spooned in the Anglophone substitutions. So the slow, somber hymn that opens the original was replaced by a slow, somber version of “Yankee Doodle.” In place of the Czarist salute in the finale, Wilkins put “The Star Spangled Banner.” “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” took the place of its sound-alike “La Marseillaise,” though history buffs will note that while Napoleon had to retreat from Moscow (reflected in Tchaikovsky’s original) America won its revolution and at least fought to an amicable treaty in the War of 1812.
Popular or not, I’ve always found the “1812 Overture” tough listening, but the depiction of combatants through their music is much more successful than anything else in the “battle” genre. Tchaikovsky had a genius for hearing a tune and figuring out how it might blend perfectly with another tune. Like his countryman Irving Berlin, he deftly manipulated counterpoint in ways that did not always alert themselves to the listener. The American rendition is, to my thinking, not so successful. I’m not sure that there’s a way to agreeably mash “America the Beautiful” and “God Save the Queen” together; I am fairly sure that it didn’t happen in this piece.
The Sydney Laurence audience, however, responded with great enthusiasm and cheers and several stood — as they should have. After all, it ended with the National Anthem.
The Anchorage Youth Philharmonic, led by Wilkins, joined the ACO for this piece (putting nearly 100 players on the stage) and had a few numbers on their one. One of the teens, Harrison Greenough, took the podium to lead the orchestra in a good rendering of the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 25.
The ACO itself accompanied Dan Heynen in Mozart’s two movement Horn Concerto K. 412 before wrapping up their season with a commendable performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, “Winter Dreams.” Phillip Munger was listed in the program as “interim conductor,” but he owned the orchestra in this reading and they owned the music. It ranked with the best playing I’ve heard from the group — and the piece is by no means easy music.
There’s a lot of brass in the piece, and that section came through with few mistakes. The lower strings, which usually manage well, were particularly good. Even the violins, which can be problematic, hung together, which speaks to the attentions of Munger and Wilkins, the ACO concertmaster, as well as the players themselves.
The winds deserved high praise, particularly oboist/English horn player Emily Weaver, whose solo in the slow movement was entrancing. The symphony was performed in three movements so that enough time would be available to rehearse. It was surely a difficult decision to drop a movement, but it was the right one. Nobody missed the omitted section, but had the orchestra stretched too far by trying to get it all in, everyone would have missed the precision and excitement that came with the finale.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.