'COMBUSTION' IGNITES ALASKA CROWD
By Leland Smith
It was an evening of stunning synergy and invention with the world premier of composer Chris Brubeck’s marvelous violin concerto “Spontaneous Combustion,” featuring the virtuoso talent of Nicolas Kendall 29, performing with the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra Saturday night at the Atwood concert hall.
The work in three movements blended well with the Gershwin and Bernstein pieces on the program, which found the orchestra in fine form, flawlessly conducted by Maestro Randall Craig Fleischer. From the down stroke of his baton, it was clear the audience was in for a unique adventure that has taken more than four years to bring to fruition.
The first movement “Gifts from Prometheus,” a haunting string movement, featured Kendall’s romantic gypsy passion from off-stage, playing his first lines from the aisle of the ground floor. It has impact to put the music before the presence of the featured player. The lonesome and foreboding melody was vaguely reminiscent of the solo passages from Rimsky-Korsavov’s, “Scheherezade”and strangely at times reminded me of the open, breathing works of Angelo Badalamenti.
Movement two, "Elegy for a Summer Day,” brought the energy and elements of rock, big band and full orchestral arrangements to the fore, allowing Kendall to freely improvise utilizing octaves, double-stops, cross bowing, pedal point and every technique found in the big book ‘o’ violin. Kendall’s greatest gift is a vibrato to die for. He utilizes micro-intonation bending in a way that reaches deep enough inside you to make your skin crawl and I mean that in a remarkable way. He often relieved the tension of the music by gesturing to the crowd or tearing the broken hair off his bow with precision comic timing. When asked who inspires him, he replied, his grandfather, who was the first person to bring the Suzuki instructional method from Japan to the U.S.
Talking to Brubeck after the show, I came to understand that the concerto was created over the course of three days of Brubeck and Kendall jamming together. It seems quite unusual to pair a trombone and violin together for jamming purposes, but as they demonstrated this process onstage after the concerto as an encore, it all seemed to make perfect sense. Brubeck then inspired by these recordings, went to work on the movements.
Searching for a theme for His work, Brubeck based “Spontaneous Combustion,” on the Greek myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to human mortals along with the gifts of music and medicine. As Zeus will tell you, no good deed goes unpunished and Brubeck’s movements tell the tale of the fate of Prometheus brilliantly.
Closing with the final movement “Unbound,” a now free Prometheus found Kendall performing a drum solo with dramatic flair as the arrangements contrasted from quiet pin-drop colorful string passages to rich, warm call and answer brass textures that gradually built to an explosive climax to the thrill of the standing crowd. This is a well-conceived and crafted work. Though I didn’t detect the melodic bebop style jazz element I expected other than free improvisation, the work is clearly a monument to the fusion of many grand elements and offers something for everyone. Hats off to the sponsors of this event.
Leland Smith is an Anchorage performer and music educator.
NEW PIECE SIZZLES, BUT REST OF PROGRAM LUKE-WARM
By Mike Dunham
Christopher Brubeck’s violin concerto, “Spontaneous Combustion,” had the Atwood Hall audience shouting as they heard its first public performance ever on Saturday night. Brubeck has custom-tailored the piece for violinist Nicolas Kendall, and his ceaseless virtuosic energy — he must have played for all but 120 seconds in the 35-minute work — supplied all of the numerous highlights.
The first movement opens with firm but calm chords over which the solo weaves an evocative meditation which is songlike without quite turning into a tune. After this introduction, rapid fingerwork sends the music racing in an amalgam of classical flamboyance, folk fiddling and jazz, with pop/jazz fusion being the prevailing harmonic style throughout.
The languid slow movement returns to the mood of the introduction, but with a stronger melodic thrust. It’s a lovely, soulful thing that largely held the crowd’s attention and is the one part of the entire concert I would most like to hear again.
The finale is almost a rondo with a perpetual motion drive to it. Kendall built to frenzy after frenzy with occasional breaks in mood, usually in the form of extra-musical stage antics. Some of the gimmicks in the outer movements — Kendall beginning to play not on stage, but in the aisles, and having half the orchestra clap rhythmically during a barn dance-ish episode — could probably be abandoned without tears.
But one bit must be retained at all costs: Near the end, Kendall set down his violin and turned to whallop on some percussion. The crowd loved it, yelling encouragement as he whacked away. Try THAT, Hilary Hahn.
The ovation was terrific. Kendall returned with Brubeck, who held a trombone, and the two demonstrated a dab of jamming, the sort of spontaneous interplay that led to the concerto and it’s title.
The orchestra and conductor Randall Craig Fleischer obviously worked long and hard on this world premiere; the piece will be performed later in Ohio and New York, and garner similarly boisterous reactions there, I'll guess. But the spunk didn’t transfer to the rest of the program.
Three dances from “On the Town” by Leonard Bernstein felt dusty and dated, with the exception of clarinetist Karl Pasch’s riffs at the beginning of the “Times Square 1944” dance. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Pasch also has experience playing with pop bands.
Darius Milhaud’s “Creation of the World” in its original 18-instrument setting was even more of a museum piece. Touted, not entirely accurately, as the first attempt to merge symphonic music and jazz, it sounds stupifyingly dull nowadays. I suspect it did in the 1920s, too, and has only survived because of the novelty factor. (Although an arrangement by the Turtle Island quartet heard here two years ago pumped some adrenaline into it.)
Despite fine playing by trumpeter Linn Weeda and concertmaster Kathryn Hoffer, the performance of “An American in Paris” was the most academic rendering of Gershwin I have heard. Admittedly, the players were tired. This piece didn’t start until almost 10 p.m. It was the second longest Anchorage Symphony program I’ve sat through. In 2000, Ignat Solzhenitsyn conducted the group in every single bar and repeat in Rachmaninoff’s oft-trimmed Second Symphony. In that case, Solhenitsyn made a heroic, if grueling, artistic choice that led to unavoidable, but acceptable, consequences. On Saturday night, the problem might have been avoided by dropping the Milhaud from the lineup.
Contact Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 257-4332.