Weekend packed with classical music

Posted: Thursday, April 03, 2003

Classical music fans can get their fix of Beethoven, Bach, Dvorak, Liszt and other great pieces of music at three live performances this weekend.

The Kenai Peninsula Orchestra has joined forces with the Anchorage Civic Orchestra for a series of concerts, two of which are this weekend. The combined orchestras will play at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Homer High School Mariner Theater and at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium at Kenai Central High School.

The collaboration between the two groups is a first and came about as a way to solve a problem that plagues small-town community orchestras everywhere -- a shortage of string players. According to Mark Robinson, conductor of the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra, the lack of a large, diverse strings section limits the music community orchestras can perform.

"It's an ongoing challenge we've had to deal with forever," he said. "For once, because we've combined forces, we will really have a fairly full symphonic strings section and it's very exciting to double our string strength,"

Combining the orchestras results in a group of 75 to 80 musicians, Robinson said. Ordinarily, the peninsula group has about 10 to 14 violins, two or three violas and four cellos. Add to that the Anchorage group and there's 28 violins, seven or eight violas and 11 or 12 cellos.

The group is taking full advantage of the opportunity presented by a large strings section to perform music they wouldn't normally do alone. On the program is Antonin Dvorak's ninth symphony, "From the New World," Edward Elgar's "Elegy for Strings," Aaron Copland's "Shaker Variations," J. S. Bach's "Little Fugue in G minor," and Modest Mussorgsky's "Great Gate of Kiev."

"We were looking for music that was within our technical capacity but that we would shy away from because of the size and scope of it," Robinson said.

All but the "Elegy for Strings" are widely popular and well-known pieces that most audience members should recognize. If audience members haven't heard the "Elegy" before, they're in for a treat as it has a lush and beautiful sound, Robinson said. Bach's fugue is arranged for a big city orchestra, so it has a grandiose symphonic sound that will showcase the strength of the large strings section. Copland's piece is very popular for it's "Simple Gifts" melody, and the "Great Gate of Kiev" will give a dramatic element to the program.

The focal point of the program will be Dvorak's ninth symphony.

"It's the biggy," Robinson said. "It's just a massive, wonderful piece. It just screams for a big strings section and now we have one so it's very exciting to do that work. Everybody loves it and never got to play it before."

While combining the groups does provide a chance to play some different, powerful music, it also presents a logistical nightmare, Robinson said. The two groups have been rehearsing separately for the last six weeks with Robinson conducting the peninsula group and Karl Pasch conducting the Anchorage group. Robinson and Pasch will each conduct half the program at the concerts. The two conductors switched orchestras a few times during the rehearsal phase so the groups could get familiar with both conductors. The groups will meet for their first joint rehearsal Saturday before their Saturday and Sunday performances. At 5 p.m. April 12, the peninsula group and some of the Anchorage orchestra members will perform in Seward, and at 2 p.m. April 13 the combined groups will perform at the Discovery Theater in Anchorage.

"It's a little crazy, but most musical endeavors are," Robinson said. "... I always believe when we do a gig it's a minor miracle anyway, but it will definitely work, I'm confident of that and I think it will be very exiting for everyone."

Tickets are $12 at the door. Advance tickets are available at Alaska Gift and Gallery in Kenai, River City Books in Soldotna and The Bookstore and Etude Music in Homer.

"It's going to be fun for everybody," Robinson said. "Fun for the players they will not feel like they have to carry it all -- big fun for the conductors -- they get to wave their arms in front of all those people -- and fun for the audience to hear a big strong sweeping symphonic sound."

On a smaller and more intimate scale, the Performing Arts Society is presenting a piano recital by Timothy Smith, professor of piano and head of piano studies at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Kenai Peninsula College.


Timothy Smith, professor of piano and head of piano studies at the University of Alaska, Anchorage.

Photo courtesy Performing Arts Society

Smith has received recognition in international competitions and made his New York recital debut in Carnegie Recital Hall as the winner of the Artists International Competition. He has performed with several orchestras and on National Public Radio.

He will perform Beethoven's "Appassionata," Schumann's "Carnival," two pieces by Liszt and "Silam Inua" by Alaskan composer Craig Coray.

Coray is an adjunct music professor at UAA who graduated from Kenai Central High School in 1966. He and his family moved to Kenai in 1960 and his parents still live there. He got his start in music when he began taking piano lessons at about age 12 while his family lived in Switzerland, prior to moving to Kenai. His piano teacher at the time got him interested in composing, an interest he developed into a career while attending the University of Alaska, Fairbanks after high school.

Coray incorporates Native Alaska songs into his compositions. His first composition in that vein was done as his master's thesis while attending graduate school at the University of New York, Buffalo. He was inspired to do so from his childhood experiences living in the Alaska Bush, he said. His father was an amateur musician who made recordings of performances of Native Alaska music. As he grew up and pursued music for a career, Coray found he had an interest in Native Alaska music just like his father did.

"I have a real connection to it," he said. "I grew up around it. I particularly like Dena'ina and Inupiaq (music). For one thing, they are the original Alaska music. I also am fascinated with the sound of the language -- their music is very closely tied-in with the language -- by the incredible drumming, and, in the case of the Dena'ina, there are some very interesting scales that are kind of different from even other Athabascan (music).

To create his compositions, Coray generally begins with a single Native Alaska song, which he adds different elements to.

"All their music is a single vocal line," he said. "There's no harmony. I make up my own harmony and add counter melodies, but I never change the original tune."

The composition Smith will perform, "Silam Inua," is a piano piece consisting of eight movements. "Silam Inua" is an Inupiaq word meaning "sky spirit," Coray said. All the material in the piece is based on original Inupiaq or Yupik songs or vocal performances (one movement is based on a man doing a walrus call).

"It differs a lot in the eight movements," Coray said. "Some are really fast some are really slow. They are separate but there's a logical progression from one to the other."

Coray has translated the effect of drumming into the piece by writing in piano clusters -- playing a lot of notes that are close to each other at the same time -- which creates a dissonant effect. In this piece, Smith will pluck the piano strings inside the piano at one point to create a dramatic effect.

Composing with Native music has taken a lot of research on Coray's part and is not an easy thing to do.

"I'd say that it's very difficult," he said. "Their melodies tend to be very static -- a lot of repeated notes. You start asking yourself 'What are you going to do with those repeated notes?' And therein the challenge lies."

When he first started using Native Alaska musical elements in his work in graduate school, Coray faced criticism for it. His main professor, in particular, did not support Coray's efforts.

"He didn't understand what I was doing at all," Coray said. "He was very puzzled by it. He told me I was a Western boy and what was I trying to do? I don't think anybody understood what I was trying to do. But I knew what I wanted to do."

Despite the lack of support for his ideas in school, he went on to gain success for his work. On the basis of his master's thesis, Coray was given a commission to compose a piece to be performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In 1991, he got a commission for another piece from the Alaska Council on the Arts.

Coray has done about five or six major compositions, he said. Currently he's working on putting together a curriculum for a Native Alaska music class at UAA that will trace the origins and developments of Native music from Native groups across the state.

Tickets for Timothy Smith's Saturday performance of Coray's "Silam Inua" and other music are $12 for youths and $15 general admission and are available at the door. Advance tickets are available at Alaska Gift and Gallery and Already Read Books in Kenai and Northcountry Fair and River City Books in Soldotna.

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