By Maia Nolan
Daily News correspondent
“Triumph” -- an original work by Anchorage Symphony Orchestra music director Randall Fleischer that incorporates Native American song and dance -- made its Alaska debut Saturday night to a seemingly endless and well-earned standing ovation.
As though to emphasize (or counterbalance) the innovation of “Triumph,” Fleischer made several more traditional selections for the first half of the program. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Ballet Suite,” a pleasant piece with a conventionally classical feel, was just the thing to ease into the evening (and to allow members of the audience an opportunity to coach their neighbors in holding their applause until the end of the piece rather than clapping between movements).
The Rameau was followed up with “Swan Lake Suite,” five pieces from the Tchaikovsky ballet, including “Scene (Moderato)” and its famous oboe solo (played admirably by Sharman Piper). There were a few tuning issues in the upper woodwinds, but the double reeds more than made up for those with spectacular work in the “Dance of the Little Swans.”
“Swan Lake” featured standout performances by harpist Molly Southworth, concertmaster Kathryn Hoffer, and principal trumpet and assistant conductor Linn Weeda.
Maurice Ravel’s dark and complex “La Valse” -- a tribute to the waltz that was influenced in its composition by the devastation of Europe during World War I -- closed the first part of the program. It was nicely played, although a little muddy-sounding at moments.
The performance really began, though, after the intermission, with the highly-anticipated Alaska debut of Fleischer’s “Triumph.”
It is difficult to describe “Triumph” in a manner that does the piece justice. To call it a “spectacle” makes it sound over-the-top, which it certainly was not; on the other hand, to suggest that it was anything less than spectacular would be unfair to Fleischer and the performers.
Beginning with a haunting, almost supernatural-sounding Native American flute solo by guest artist R. Carlos Nakai, “Triumph” builds into a complex, fascinating interplay between the classical orchestra and traditional Native performers, combining orchestral music with traditional Navajo song and dance performed by the Jones Benally Family.
In each movement, the orchestra picks up the Native singers’ melodies and expands on them, blending the classical and the traditional in breathtaking ways.
Percussion plays a key role in connecting the orchestra and the Native performers, and Steven Alvarez performed admirably, particularly given the number of instruments the part called on him to play. Lighting design by Lauren MacKenzie Miller further heightens the piece’s emotion.
There are moments at which two modern dancers seem a little out of place, but ultimately their presence serves the work’s themes of conflict and coexistence, particularly in the final movement, when their choreography is a gentler echo of an earlier, more sinister dance.
“Triumph” is more than just a symphonic work or a dance piece; it’s a multicultural experience with a message. The image of a Native dancer moving against the backdrop of a symphony orchestra, the complex instrumental music blending with traditional song, seems to represent hope that the ancient and the modern, the indigenous and the industrial, can not only coexist but complement one another.
-- Maia Nolan lives and writes in Anchorage.