By MIKE DUNHAM
The program celebrating the Alaska Chamber Singers’ 25th season may not be the group’s most exciting concert; my pick would be one or more of their all-Bach events. But it was, as guest conductor Anton Armstrong pointed out, impeccable – in terms of pitch, phrasing, diction, balance and texture.
Most selections fell on the slower side, with heart put ahead of athleticism. The selections struck me as pieces singers enjoy singing perhaps slightly more than audiences enjoy hearing. Yet the audience seemed delighted with what they heard, certainly the group closest to me who repeatedly murmured, “Wow!” at particularly sensual choral effects.
Of greatest interest was the world premiere of “Alaska Spring” by Libby Larsen, in which the chorus was joined by a string quartet. Former Alaska poet laureate Tom Sexton read each of his five poems in the cycle – each addressing some facet of spring in the north and the poet’s reaction to it – before the setting of each by Larsen.
The first piece, “April,” began with the chorus singing an indirect melody reflecting winter to which the quartet replied with a smear of notes. The writing became more chordal and the songfullness more expansive until it climaxed in an expression of relief at the first inklings of warmer weather.
The writing that followed was in a similar vein, somewhat descriptive, complex but agreeable harmonies, never quite a tune. The quartet sat out the third movement, “Fiddlehead,” in which the singers had the sound of a chorale. The lively depiction of juncos in the fourth movement (“In small bird tempo”) delighted the audience.
The finale, “Walking the Marsh,” was the most straight-forward and most successful of the settings. Sexton’s parade of images was delivered almost in a call-and-response style. Building to the conclusion, the line, “I have walked where mastodons walked,” came off as something both grand and ghostly.
Armstrong hinted that he might consider reprising this piece in Oregon in the next year or so. It would be illuminating to see how a non-Alaska audience would respond to the subject – though it should be noted that nowhere in the piece is Alaska named except in the title.
A dexterous reading of Handel’s Coronation Anthem “Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened” anchored one end of the program; an arrangement of the spiritual “My Good Lord’s Done Been Here” wrapped up the other.
Among the several shorter works in between, high points were a beautiful “We Shall Walk Through the Valley in Peace,” arranged by the late Moses Hogan, and a curious new work by Ralph Johnson, “This House of Peace.” The new piece, written for a hospital in Oregon, paired statements from clients with a Celtic blessing. Soloist Kim Martin’s voice was as on-target as a well-played instrument, but (almost uniquely in this concert) the words weren’t always clear.
The program will be repeated at 4 p.m. on Sunday at St. Andrew’s Church in Eagle River. The acoustical peculiarities of that space may work to the benefit of the music or not. But the location – away from the airplanes flying over Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, where the singers performed on Saturday, and motorcycles shifting gears on Wisconsin Blvd. – may well be an overall improvement.