By MIKE DUNHAM
Updating a previous post -
All those people scribbling furiously on pads near the Teklanika Field Camp in Denali National Park and Preserve next week won’t be biologists jotting down scientific data. They’ll be composers, writing music as part of a unique course offered by the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival.
The participants’ assignment is to absorb the mood of the park and turn their impressions into a brand new piece of music at lightning speed.
“Part of the experiment is that this is a whirlwind of activity,” said Stephen Lias, an instructor at Stephen F. Austin State College in Nacogdoches, Texas, and the course leader. “Starting Sunday (July 22), they’ll have four days in the park. Then we’ll go back to Fairbanks for two or three days of workshopping the new pieces with the performers.”
On July 28, the new pieces will all be premiered by the Festival Orchestra in a concert in Fairbanks.
Lias, whose website describes him as an “adventurer-composer,” said he fell in love with Alaska five or six years ago.
“I’d been working with the Texas Shakespeare Festival,” he said. “I took the money I earned and spent it all to go kayaking in Prince William Sound.”
He has been fixated on making visits to America’s National Parks and writing about his experiences in them for the past three years.
“To date, I’ve written pieces about Big Bend, Rocky Mountain, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Mount Rainier, Carlsbad Caverns and Denali National Parks,” he said. His goal is to have as many related works as possible in time for the centennial of National Park Service in 2016.
In June he was at Glacier Bay National Monument. At the beginning of July he hiked in the Wrangell Mountains. At the end of this month, he’ll head to the Gates of the Arctic. Musical works will be written after each trip.
Concert in the park
The Denali piece is titled, appropriately, “Denali.” It was premiered in October by the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin and will receive its Alaska debut at the Denali Visitor Center on Saturday, July 21.
String players from the Fairbanks Festival will drive down to perform the work under the direction of Robert Franz, associate conductor of the Houston Symphony and music director for the Boise Philharmonic. Franz will also conduct the July 28 concert in Fairbanks at which the new pieces by Lias’ “students” will be performed.
National Park Service officials say the concert on the 21st, which includes Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings and Mark O’Connor’s Fiddle Concerto, will be the first orchestral performance ever in the park. The concert is part of the inaugural Denali Music Festival. Between July 13 and 22 several musical happenings featuring both classical and folk/roots musicians will take place at a variety of locations from Healy, on the outskirts of the park, to the Eielson Visitor Center in the heart of Denali.
It took some creative bureaucracy for the music to happen.
“We don’t currently accept composers in the Artists in the Park program,” said Tim Rains, a media specialist for the park who helped organize the festival. The solution was for Lias to frame his request in the form of a project proposal.
“Basically, it put me in the same category as a researcher studying the mating habits of Dall sheep,” Lias said. But it worked.
“Steve made a compelling proposal and we invited him to come here and write a piece of music,” Rains said.
Lias was allowed to stay in the cabin reserved for Artists in the Park in May, 2011, early in the season, before the regular park artists and writers were scheduled to use it.
The next step, Rains said, was to figure out a way for people to hear what Lias has composed.
Word reached Franz in Fairbanks and a serious conversation began about having the Festival present a performance at the Visitor Center.
“I love this idea of having a composer in residence in the park,” Franz said. “It’s awesome. And the center is the perfect little venue,” seating about 250 people.
(Franz will also lead his players and a choir of Denali Borough school students in a separate performance at the Eielson Visitor Center on Sunday, July 22.)
“This is a great thing for the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival to be connected with,” Franz said. “It’s never happened before. It broadens the event, brings music to as many people as possible.”
Starting a trend
“Denali” is about six minutes long. “The broad gestures of the piece try to capture the essence of flying over the snow-capped mountains,” Lias said, “the grace and delicacy of the ecosystem, the danger and fear of predator and prey, the grandeur of the mountains and valleys, and then once again flying over it all toward the summit of Denali.”
Composers in general, and American composers in particular, have often found inspiration in the great outdoors. Among the best-known works of American classical music is Ferde Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite.”
Alaska composers, including Craig Coray and Philip Munger, have based major works on the state’s geographic features. John Luther Adams and Matthew Burtner have incorporated actual recordings of natural sounds — wind, water, geese — into their works.
“Our goal is in coming year to invite other composers to come here and write more pieces,” said Rains. “In fact we already have our next piece.”
That will be “Songs of Winter,” written by Erik DeLuca, who often works with recorded sound or “soundscapes.” Born in Florida, living in Virginia, DeLuca skied out to the Savage River cabin in the dead of winter. He told the Fairbanks News-Miner that he felt threatened by the bitter cold.
“It was like minus 40,” said Rains. “Yeah, it was pretty rough.”
DeLuca’s 30-minute piece will be notably different from Lias’ short, springtime-inspired “Denali.” But the two composers may have started a trend. Lias said almost as soon as he announced the course all nine slots filled up and there was a waiting list. Participants in this month’s excursion include professionals and students from around the Lower 48 and far away as Australia.
“My visit to Denali was a pebble that started an avalanche,” Lias said.
DENALI MUSIC FESTIVAL EVENTS
Sweet Plantain, 7:30 p.m., July 20, 49th State Brewing Co., Healy.
Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival Ensemble, 7:30 p.m., July 20, McKinley Chalet Resort.
Sweet Plantain, 1 p.m., July 21, Black Diamond Resort, 1 mile Otto Lake Road, Healy.
Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival string orchestra, 7 p.m., July 21, Denali Visitor Center in Denali National Park and Preserve. Program will include the Alaska premiere of Stephen Lias’ “Denali,” Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings and the Fiddle Concerto of Mark O’Connor, with soloist Caitlin Warbelow. Robert Franz conducts.
Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival string orchestra and Tri-Valley High School Choir, “around noon,” July 22, Eielson Visitor Center, Denali National Park and Preserve.
Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival Orchestra, 1 p.m., July 28, Davis Concert Hall, University of Alaska Fairbanks. The program will include new pieces by composers now working in Denali National Park, Faure’s “Pavanne” with dancers from the Festival, opera excerpts and, tentatively, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Robert Franz conducts.
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.