By Clark Fair
Bringing jazz and classical music to the central Kenai Peninsula has usually been a seamless affair for the local Performing Arts Society — but not always.
“The closest thing we’ve had to ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do now?’ was one winter when the Sitka musicians were coming in,” said Jean Brockel, one of the PAS founding members.
The Sitka troupe, led by violinist Paul Rosenthal, had finished its winter concerts in Anchorage and was on a subsequent tour of rural and remote communities. The musicians had performed in King Salmon, and the central peninsula was next on the list — a concert in the cozy and acoustically friendly confines of the sanctuary at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna.
When the King Salmon concert had ended, however, Rosenthal and his fellow musicians discovered that the weather had soured.
“In King Salmon it was snowing like crazy — no visibility, can’t get off the ground,” said Brockel. “But they had a day or two to play with so, OK, that’s fine. So the night of the concert (in Soldotna), we just assumed everything was OK. Sometime during that day, we got word that they were still in King Salmon but that the weather was lifting and they were going to be able to make the concert.”
They took off from King Salmon in improving weather only to learn that the snowstorm had hit Kenai, and the visibility at the Kenai Municipal Airport was dropping steadily. Meanwhile, at the church, the audience had arrived and was waiting patiently for the scheduled entertainment.
“We just kept assuming that everything was going to work out all right, and so were all just sitting there, and we were waiting, waiting, waiting,” continued Brockel. “We kept calling the airport: ‘Has the plane landed?’ No, no, no. So we said, ‘All right, they are anticipated but they have not landed. And the ground people assume that they will be here. So in the meantime, while we’re waiting, let’s go and have cookies, and we’ll have our reception first, and then by that time they’ll be here.’”
And they were right. During the ensuing consumption of cookies, the musicians did, indeed, arrive, still dressed in their warm-weather Bush gear.
“One of the guys had bunny boots,” Brockel said. “And they came stomping in, and that’s how they played the concert. I said, ‘Do you want time to change?’ and Paul said, ‘No, we’re going to play now.’ And they charged down the aisle, got out their instruments, warmed them up a little bit, and began to play.”
Usually the process is much smoother for the PAS, an organization beginning its 11th year of bringing in top-quality classical and jazz performers. The 2010-11 concert season begins Thursday, Sept. 23, in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai Central High School when a capella quartet Chic Gamine performs in a 7:30 p.m. show.
The Performing Arts Society began in 1999 when Brockel and Dave Forbes were working together on the Sunday Showcase at Kenai Peninsula College. They conceived the idea of bringing the duo of violinist Linda Rosenthal (wife of Paul) and local pianist Maria Allison to the college for a performance, but the idea bogged down in a mire of financial paperwork.
“We got tangled up in the university accounting system, which is not a place you want to get tangled up in,” said Brockel. “And we were not making any progress at all. We were getting no place, frustrated, and I was talking to Freddie Billingslea about it. And between Freddie and myself, we thought, ‘Well, who needs them, anyway?’”
So Billingslea put up half of the money needed to finance the concert, and Brockel put up the other half, and the concert took place in March.
“And of course it was great,” Brockel said. “We knew it was going to be, which is why we went into it. And when all the accounting for the concert was done, we had the chance to get part of our money back for each of us — or not.”
They decided not to pay themselves back. They decided, instead, to use what they had to fund future performances, and they brought Forbes into the mix to do all the paperwork of incorporation. Then they began gathering other patrons of the arts to form a board of directors, beginning with Betty Obendorf, Allison, Lorrene Forbes, J. Michael James, and Dick Troeger.
Soon they were bringing to the central peninsula an average of four classical or jazz concerts per season, and filling a need for local audiences, just as other past and present individuals and organizations have done and are doing in a range of musical and performance-related styles.
Some of those individuals and organizations include Mike Morgan’s World Music for the Kenai, the Sunday Showcase, the Redoubt Chamber Orchestra, the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra, the Sitka Summer Musical Festival, and the Kenai Arts and Humanities Council.
Before any of these entities, however, there was the Central Peninsula Concert Association, which was begun in 1964 by Conrad “Con” Potter, a former Kenai District superintendent of schools. Potter, who Brockel called “a very arts-oriented kind of person, a very active, very intelligent man,” conceived the idea and gathered enough arts-loving individuals around him to make it work.
The first concert occurred in the KCHS gymnasium at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 16, 1964, when the Anchorage Community College Vocal Ensemble, under the direction of Elvera Voth, performed for an audience of about 200, and then joined interested concertgoers in the Home Economics classroom for a light supper and a social hour.
By the time of this concert, the CPCA counted 99 members toward its stated goal of 150, and the organization thrived for more than 20 years before shutting down its operation in mid-1980s.
In 1964, according to a letter from Potter to association members, the cost of financing concerts through the Alaska Music Trails Series was about $400 per performance, meaning that a four-concert season required $1,600 — a cost he hoped to spread among a growing number of association members.
According to Brockel, $1,600 today is on the low end of the expenses entailed in a single PAS-sponsored concert. Generally, she said, costs per concert range from $1,500 to $5,000.
“We don’t go beyond five (thousand),” she said. “That’s a little rich for our blood.”
Among the benefits that PAS and similar organizations provide the community is the opportunity to meet outstanding artists personally during post-performance receptions, and the chance to enjoy high-brow entertainment without traveling to the big city.
“I don’t want to have to go to Anchorage if I can have them (concerts) down here and I can drive around the corner,” Brockel said. “Around the corner” for Brockel, who lives in central Soldotna, is the Lutheran church, which she calls “the perfect place for chamber music” and the key small-concert venue in the Kenai-Soldotna area.
“It is acoustically very nice,” she said. “You can sit there and see the sweat rolling off the artists, and they’re playing and you can see the strings vibrating, and it’s a marvelous thing. That’s what chamber music is supposed to be. You’re supposed to be in a small, enclosed space with these musicians so that you will interact and are really affected by the music.”
No one is likely to be playing in bunny boots this year, but the intimacy of the experience should be as intense as ever.