Accompanist's love of music a boon to others

Posted: Sunday, March 21, 2004

For a community with, in relative terms, such a small number of residents, the Kenai Peninsula has a burgeoning music scene.

There's high school choirs that embark on international tours.

There's yearly musicals put on by the Kenai Performers, a group of community players, such as the recent "My Favorite Year."

There's a community orchestra and choir that has performed Mozart's "Requiem" and will perform Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" in April.

There's the Performing Arts Society, which is dedicated to bringing classical music and jazz concerts to the central peninsula.

There's also classes at Kenai Peninsula College in areas like music appreciation and opera.

These projects not only take a lot of time to pull off, they also take a ton of talent. Usually, these projects also take Maria Allison, a central peninsula resident described by her peers as a humble master of the piano who has a grace and patience that brings out untapped musical ability in those with whom she works.


Maria Allison takes direction from Conductor Mark Robinson last week during a practice for some of the choir members for "Carmina Burana."

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Mark Robinson, the choral director at Homer High School and the artistic director and conductor for the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra, grew up in a town of 5,000 to 6,000 people in Indiana. He said that community produced virtually nothing compared to the bounty created by visual artists, writers, dancers and musicians on the peninsula.

A big reason for that bounty, Robinson said, is people like Allison.

"I think the peninsula is blessed with a lot of people who I think to myself sometimes, 'How come they're here? They could be anywhere,'" Robinson said. "She's certainly in that category.

"I think part of it is we love living up here. We love Alaska. We love the Kenai Peninsula."

The move to Alaska

In the mid-1970s, Allison was a kindergarten teacher and elementary school music teacher living in Colorado and yearning to spend more time playing the piano.


Maria Allison applauds a performance from Shelah Moreno-Jones during a piano class in Soldotna. As a teacher, Allison has shared her love of music with about local students for 25 years.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

That's when Allison's husband, Tom, had an idea.

"Tom always thought it would be neat to come to Alaska and live and work here," Allison said. "I thought it would be neat, too, so in 1978 we decided to come on up."

Allison actually didn't get up to Alaska until 1979. When she got here, she decided to ditch her former life of teaching in schools for a life of playing the piano and teaching piano lessons.

"I wanted to focus on music more than anything else," she said.

Such statements often can be a precursor to poverty. Tom's job with the oil industry gave Maria some breathing room.

"It was nice because I didn't feel like a poverty-stricken musician right off the bat," Allison said. "It was a good thing I didn't have to make a living at it."

Before leaving for Alaska, Allison had heard the igloo and no-grocery-store admonitions about moving north. The musician was pleasantly surprised to arrive and find a community interested in the arts.


Allison displays a very well worn key taken from the piano that was in her childhood home. The key is a silent reminder of the many hours she spends practicing and performing.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"I think people that move to Alaska are interested in something unique," Allison said. "That's why this is such a great art and music place and why there is so much artistic expression."

Then it was just a matter of the peninsula realizing what a musician it had on its hands.

Allison started playing the piano and violin when she was 4 years old. She started studying with her college piano teacher, Audun Ravnan, when she was in ninth grade. Allison would eventually earn a master of arts in piano from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

As Allison performed here and did things like win a piano performance competition in Fairbanks in 1981, her reputation quickly spread.

Fast forward to the present day, and Allison has no trouble finding places to make music on the peninsula.

"She gets calls almost daily," said Tom, who retired in 1995. "I field this phone a lot."

High school choir

Anyone with the slightest involvement in the area musical scene knows the name Renee Henderson, the choir director at Kenai Central High School.

Henderson has been teaching at KCHS for more than three decades. She has taken her choirs on numerous international tours and brings in guest conductors, some who are known the world over, for events such as the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Honor Choir and Mass Choir. Henderson even has the auditorium at KCHS named after her.

What many may not know is the difference Allison, who has been working with Henderson for nearly a quarter of a century, has made in those ventures by serving as an accompanist on the piano.

"I know personally she's made a huge difference in my life," Henderson said. "I'd never be able to program the level of music I program if it weren't for her.

"It's simply too difficult for the majority of us."

When most people attend a choir concert, they will go and, naturally, listen to the choir. The accompanist is often overlooked by the listener, but never by the choir director.

"Maria has the chops to be a fabulous solo performer, but the role of the accompanist is by definition different," said Robinson, the choral director at Homer High School. "She's the consummate accompanist and, as such, she unerringly makes the person or group sound better without you being aware of it."

Tom, himself a singer in the community choir, calls his wife's ability to accompany "almost sinuous."

Allison has served as the accompanist on many of Henderson's international tours.

"Maria almost thinks with a person," Henderson said. "She knows where to go back to in a rehearsal without being asked.

"She's really an extension of what I'm thinking in my brain, except she plays it perfectly."


Allison, in back at center, performs with other members of the Kalgin Island Quartet during an appearance at River City Books in Soldotna several years ago.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Allison also accompanies the school district mass and honor choirs, drawing rave reviews from the guest conductors.

"We bring in clinicians from all over the country, and I've never had one say they've had one any better than Maria," Henderson said. "She's terrific."

Dave Schmidt also got to know Allison well in his 20 years teaching choir and band at Soldotna Middle School and band at Redoubt Elementary.

He is quick to laud Allison's musical ability in the repertoire from all the different eras, but also is awed by the positive attitude Allison always kept when rehearsing with students and her generosity with her time.

"She's always been there," Schmidt said. "She'll pretty much drop what she's doing if she's needed.

"She's worked with many of my students preparing audio tapes for college. She's at their beck and call. She's an incredible gift for this community."

Involvement at KPC

Allison's work does not stop with high school students. She teaches classes in music appreciation, music theory and opera at Kenai Peninsula College.

She also serves as the accompanist for Jean Brockel's voice and chorus classes at the college. Since the fall, Brockel and Allison have been immersed in getting the community chorus ready for "Carmina Burana."

Brockel said it did not take her very long to pick up on Allison's aptitude for accompanying voice students.

"Especially when new students have to perform, they'll be nervous," Brockel said. "As soon as I'd say Maria will be accompanying them, they'd breathe a sigh of relief.

"She's just so able and so quick. If they would go astray as a singer, she'd find a way to bring them back."


Allison practices at home before a performance last week.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Brockel said the other great thing about working with Allison is that her immense musical ability does not cause friction.

"We do it together. There's no real dividing line. That's really easy to do with Maria," Brockel said. "Besides being an excellent musician, she's a very gracious person, a very modest person about her talents and her gifts."

Brockel and Allison also have worked together producing a number of concerts for the Performing Arts Society, on which both are board members.

"She's been invaluable finding musicians to bring down here for a concert," Brockel said. "Doing the business of setting up a concert is something not a lot of musicians know how to do."


Brockel used to be the vocal director for musicals, but she hasn't done that in years, partly because musicals take up so much time.

Yet Allison, in spite of her other commitments, often will find time to be involved in the yearly musical put on by the Kenai Performers, although she's not involved with the musical every year as she once was.

When asked how Allison finds the time for musicals, Brockel points out another attribute about the pianist: "It looks like everybody else has a 24-hour day, but hers is 36."

Allison played piano in the pit orchestra and also served as the rehearsal pianist for the recently performed "My Favorite Year." Rehearsal would be three or four days a week, and Allison estimates she put in 100 total hours of rehearsal time.

Tammy Vollom-Matturro was the director of the pit orchestra for "My Favorite Year." The music was difficult, so Vollom-Matturro knew there was only one rehearsal pianist to turn to.

Vollom-Matturro first appreciated Allison's musical ability in the early '90s, when Allison accompanied Vollom-Matturro for a clarinet recital. Vollom-Matturro said Allison's skill as an accompanist got her playing the clarinet better than ever before.

The duo also plays in the Kalgin Island Quartet, a group that plays chamber music for occasions like weddings on the peninsula.

"We couldn't have done 'My Favorite Year' if she didn't do the piano," Vollom-Matturro said. "It was that difficult of a show.

"The musical ability she's able to bring out in everybody is amazing."

Kenai Peninsula Orchestra

Not one to sit idle for very long, Allison is going right from "My Favorite Year" to "Carmina Burana."

Robinson said Allison has always been there for the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra, involving herself in organizational details and playing virtually every concert as a pianist, violist or violinist.

Allison has even been featured as the guest artist for the orchestra, performing the Grieg Piano Concerto in the summer of 1990.

"She has all the tools," Robinson said. "She has perfect pitch. Her ear is phenomenal. She doesn't miss anything.

"Her manual dexterity on the keyboard is incredible, and she is incredibly sensitive. Put technique and musical sensitivity together and you get genuine artistry. She is a genuine artist."

Robinson said Allison is one of a number of leaders in the orchestra who spurs other members on to great heights.

"She's got this spirit about her," Robinson said. "It doesn't matter if she's working with amateurs or high school kids. She always makes them sound better.

"There's never a sense she considers herself better than others, though. She's very humble."

The perfect circle

Allison took a special satisfaction away from "My Favorite Year" because one of the lead players in the musical, Erik Larson, also was one of her first violin students on the peninsula.

It sums up the relationship Allison has had with the peninsula. She came up here looking to enrich her life by playing and teaching as much music as possible.

By giving through playing and teaching, Allison has helped shape a peninsula that gives her a variety of musical opportunities from international tours to musicals to symphonies.

"It's huge this contribution she's made to this community of music lovers," Brockel said. "There's just no way to measure things like that."

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