Music from the north

Gordon Wright inspires Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra

Posted: Thursday, December 21, 2000

FAIRBANKS -- Most conductors don't take lip from their players. But Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra musicians, like a lot of folks in Alaska's Interior, aren't shy about confronting officialdom.

''Are you going to 'ritard' the ending?'' shouted someone in the brass at the conclusion of a run-through.

''No,'' the maestro replied firmly.

''You did!'' admonished the string and wind sections in unison.

Gordon Wright sighed from the podium. He stroked his great, gray, shovel-shaped beard and shrugged his flannel plaid-clad shoulders meekly. ''I'll try to pay more attention.''

The musicians may be kibitzers, but their loyalty to and affection for Wright flashed as they followed his baton and spanked off the repeat with Prussian precision.

''He's earned a kind of moral authority,'' trumpeter James Kowalsky said. ''There's no one quite like him -- a true Alaskan spirit where musical pioneering is considered. He has set the standard for that, and we are indebted to him for taking us along.''

For Wright, this was a reunion. He led the group from 1969 to 1989 and molded it into one of the leading community orchestras in America, receiving awards from national organizations and notice from national media.

Fairbanks' ensemble is the northernmost orchestra in America. The word ''community'' means the musicians are volunteers. The conductor is an employee of both the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the nonprofit Fairbanks Symphony Association.

He has to satisfy an audience as vocal and independent as his players. Wright described it as ''a combined democracy and benevolent dictatorship, with the balance of power one of those things you don't probe too deeply.''

Wright now lives in Anchorage. He returned to his old band this year when current conductor Madeline Schatz took a sabbatical. Fans were happy to see him again.

''When Gordon came back, there was just an overwhelming response,'' said Ed Bostrom, a 20-year patron of the symphony. ''He represents the essence of this outback. We've really missed him.''

Ditto the musicians, said Fairbanks composer John Luther Adams. ''His easygoing way of encouraging people to reach and play beyond themselves seems very welcome right now.''

''I'm a music pusher,'' said Wright with a smirk.

In that line of work, coaxing works better than demands. During rehearsal, he hectored his troops gently, first making fun of the whacking chords that opened a concerto, then pleading, ''Let's try to make some music out of it.''

Gordon Wright was born in the New York City borough of Brooklyn on the last day of 1934. He fell in love with the classical snippets that accompanied radio programs in his childhood. Among his favorites was ''The Challenge of the Yukon'' featuring Sergeant Preston of the Mounties.

He took up violin at age 12 after hearing Fritz Kreisler play. He earned a degree in music at the College of Wooster in Ohio, where he also made his conducting debut. Two years in the military took him to Europe, where he heard the best German musicians and married a cellist.

He returned to the United States and earned his master's degree at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He played violin in several ensembles but wanted to conduct so badly that he soon started his own orchestra. Fairbanks trumpeter Kowalsky was among his players.

Kowalsky was impressed by Wright's generosity to younger musicians and ''his 'hell yes, let's do it' attitude.''

Later, Kowalsky followed Wright to Fairbanks. They were political as well as musical colleagues, helping found the Fairbanks Environmental Center and working in the Alaska office of Friends of the Earth.

William R. Wood, former UAF president, said Wright's enthusiasm for music transcends policy issues.

''That was a wonderful investment we made, hiring Gordon,'' he said, beaming. ''Not only for Fairbanks, but for all of Alaska. He really built things here.''

Wright built the orchestra into a musical laboratory in which Alaska composers had a chance to hear their work. Fairbanks hosted the world premieres of early pieces by Philip Munger, Craig Coray, John Luther Adams and other Alaskans. Wright himself composed works for the orchestra. Wood fondly recalled the ''1984 Overture,'' written for the 25th anniversary of statehood.

Jane Aspnes, principal horn player, appreciated the amount of new music Wright included.

''It really enabled us to have our own voice among orchestras. We were unique throughout the country,'' he said.

''Frankly, it helped with funding,'' said Dietrich Strohmaier, former president of the orchestra. Grant organizations took special notice of groups with the gumption to play the heretofore unheard.

Ironically, the champion of modern music chose to live a preindustrial lifestyle. Wright's homes in both Anchorage and Fairbanks are cabins, located off the electric grid. Water and supplies must be hauled in with a stiff hike through the woods.

''It wasn't always like this,'' he said as he brewed coffee on a wood stove in his Fairbanks cabin. ''I used to live in a normal house, in town, with a fenced yard and a dog and kids.'' Three of them. ''I had a wonderful family. We parted ways in 1978, and I moved to the cabin. And I've lived in cabins ever since.''

Under Wright's direction, Fairbanks heard important 20th century works, like concertos by Alban Berg and Lennox Berkeley. He also explored earlier music. He has a fascination with seldom-played Romantic and post-Romantic composers. His repertoire includes pieces by Bulow, Moor, Schoeck, Weingartner and Emil von Reznicek.

''Reznicek is the ultimate one-work composer,'' Wright said.

Wright's audiences have heard a lot of it. He's conducted all of Reznicek's symphonies and recorded most of them. His enthusiasm is such that he started the Reznicek Society, dedicated to reviving the music of forgotten Romantics.

In 1990, he led the polished, professional Orchestra of St. Luke's in a series of New York concerts consisting entirely of scores unopened for the past 100 years.

His frugal lifestyle helps him save money to self-fund performances of music he burns to hear. A passion for giving life to these rarities seems to emanate from his bones.

''I don't trust posterity,'' he said emphatically. ''Besides, the idea of a second chance is fun. Reznicek was a master of totally eccentric music. I kind of identify with the guy. I'm a forgotten romantic myself, dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th and now the 21st century.''



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