By MIKE DUNHAM
On May 5, the Anchorage Concert Chorus featured several new or recent works by Alaskan, notably two fairly brief wordless works by Philip Munger and John Luther Adams. Both were successful in my opinion — and perhaps brevity had something to do with that — and challenging for the singers. Munger’s “Alaska Trees” used syllables and effective tone painting to suggest local woodlife. Adams’ “Sky with Four Suns” broke the chorale into four choruses in the four corners of Atwood Concert Hall, all building the same chord based on open fifths but at different rates of speed.
George Belden’s “Thompson Songs,” set to the poetry of Elizabeth Thompson, caught listeners by surprise. Going from a choir of singers to a soloist — Marlene Bateman — required some adjustment of the ears; and it’s possible that Bateman misestimated the amount of projection she needed at first. But the words “Undo your voodoo juju” had us leaning forward. Kate Egan sang a second setting and then collaborated with Bateman in a concluding duet. The pieces had a lounge feel to them and a sense of swing reminiscent of some of Malcom Bolcom’s art songs in a cabaret style.
The biggest new work was an eight-movement set titled “Alaska” by Victoria Fraser. Each movement nodded at some aspect of Alaska landscape or wildlife, though not all texts were by Alaskans (such as Tennyson’s “The Eagle”). The tone was consonant and lush. The best of the set may have been the “North Lights” section, set to excerpts from Robert Service’s “Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “Ballad of the Northern Lights.”
The program opened with conductor Grant Cochran's arrangement of "Alaska's Flag," recrafted almost to the point of unrecognizability, richly harmonized with some clever counterpoint, but mainly of interest in how it segued into "Winds of the Mountains." That number, written for the Anchorage Community Chorus in 1956 by Robert Crawford, best known as the author of the Air Force song, had probably not been performed anywhere for the past 56 years, Cochran noted. It's a pretty negligible march, a pale shadow of the infectious chorus "Off We Go into the Wild Blue Yonder" and more like the never-heard verse of that song.
Cochran's arrangement of "Simple Gifts" was also on the first half of the program, which was sung by the ACC's Chorale ensemble. It's a polished rendition, with some attractive syncopation in the middle. But it probably should have been cut. The first half of the program, which started late, didn't break for intermission until nearly 9:30 and the full concert didn't end until almost 11 p.m.
(I don't understand why programs continue to list the song as a "Traditional American" folksong. The composer has been known since 1848, when the song was new, Joseph Brackett, Jr. (1797–1882). It is NOT anonymous.)
The last half of that concert featured the full chorus with the Anchorage Youth Symphony, led by Linn Weeda, bravely plunging into Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The orchestra struggled somewhat with the exposition section of the first movement, but came together well in the development and recapitulation. The large number of players helped carry the ensemble through a number of the trouble spots.
The male solo singers, John Ken Nuzzo and Anton Belov, were excellent. Belov strikingly sang the opening lines and famed tune without the sheet music; any experienced opera baritone should be able to do this, but I haven’t seen it before. It was a masterstroke of professionalism.
The female soloist in the quartet have less prominent parts and were generally quieter than the men, but Bateman and soprano Anastasia Jamieson nonetheless did well and the chorus itself was secure and full-voiced.