By Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter
Don’t let the dress black attire, choreographed concert etiquette, sunny summer afternoons eschewed to stay in and practice, or, in this case, the heart-wrenching melancholy of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” fool you — the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra is down for a good time.
A well-rehearsed, in tune, rhythmically precise, note-perfect good time — but a good time all the same. That’s where KPO’s Summer Music Festival comes in. It hits all the right notes for KPO musicians and music lovers in the community — the infrequent opportunity for a live, full-orchestra performance of intricate, demanding, grandiose, renowned masterworks of classical music, plus the festive fun of just jamming on some tunes.
“I’m so excited for the festival this year. It’s going to be so much fun,” said Tammy Vollom-Matturro, conductor and artistic director of the KPO.
The festival cued up Monday with the first of two weeks of free informal concerts held at noon each weekday at various locations around the central Kenai Peninsula and Homer. In Soldotna, the first concert was with Jeanne Duhan and Kent Peterson, jamming on guitar, mandolin and harmonica to a set list including Fleetwood Mac, the Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show, among others. The concerts are a way to promote the upcoming gala concert — Aug. 8 in Homer and Aug. 9 in Kenai — but also a chance for musicians to play with music a little more loosely than they would play in orchestra.
“In orchestra they play French horn (Duhan) and bass (Peterson). So they get to show off different sides of their talent, and they’re just great,” said Vollom-Matturro, who will be putting down her baton and picking up her clarinet to perform in one of the afternoon concerts.
“I get to take out my clarinet and I get to play, and I love playing chamber concerts. It’s different from what we’re doing in the big orchestra. It’s more intimate, you can interact with the crowd and the music is totally different and shows off a different side of their musicianship. They really, really enjoy this relaxed atmosphere. The musicians love it,” she said.
Then come the gala concerts, the culmination of months of solo practice and sectional rehearsals, and the final push of two weeks of full-orchestra rehearsals, with musicians traveling from all over the peninsula and beyond to fine-tune and polish the program.
This year’s concert includes a tribute to American composers in the first half, starting off with Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” The simple yet stirring brass and percussion of the understatedly powerful fanfare conjures images of mankind’s accomplishments that are anything but common — as the piece is often used as a soundtrack for footage of space exploration, the Olympics and other moments of historic importance.
From the height of achievement, rendered in brass and percussion, comes the devastating emotion of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” It might as well be played on heartstrings, rather than orchestral strings, as the piece, “Has been quoted as being the saddest piece of music ever written,” Vollom-Matturro said. “It’s been played when announcing JFK’s death, and they played the entire piece during an absolutely gut-wrenching scene in (the movie) ‘Platoon.’ It’s very familiar. You go, ‘Oh, yes, I recognize this,’ then you go, ‘Oooohhh’ and bawl through the entire thing because it’s so sad, and so incredibly lush and well-written.”
What could possibly ballast that roller coaster, from fanfare to forlorn? Fun, of course. And no American composer fits that bill quite as well as George Gershwin, with his “Rhapsody in Blue.”
“Everybody’s sitting in their chairs exhausted from weeping so hard, so we throw the Gershwin at them and jazz it up,” Vollom-Matturro said.
Not just Gershwin, one of the best-known American composers of all time, but his best-known composition and featuring one of the peninsula’s best-known musicians, pianist Maria Allison, of Kenai.
The orchestra has a featured guest performer or performers in each summer gala concert, often someone brought in for the occasion, which offers local audiences a treat of exposure to world-class musicians. But every few years it’s also a treat to remind audiences that the peninsula has its own world-class musicians.
“It’s so great for us to play with Maria. She’s so awesome to work with. It’s so much fun because she’s so musical, and she makes it so easy because she’s so musical. When she’s on the piano and I’m on the podium it works so well because it’s like we’re mind melded,” Vollom-Matturro said.
Most listeners will likely be familiar with the piece. That’s both an opportunity and added pressure to perform it well.
“When you play a piece that’s well known there’s no room for errors because people know it. Every note, every tempo change, you have to hit exactly the way it should be. Then again, because the audience knows it and is comfortable with it and they know Maria and it’s such an incredible piece of music — probably the absolutely best, well-known piece he wrote — it’s fun for us and fun for the audience,” Vollom-Matturro said.
“You just know the audience is going to enjoy it. They’re going to be just getting into it more because they know the piece,” Allison said. “(A fellow musician) told me once, ‘It’s always fun to play a piece of music when people want to get up and start dancing.’ That’s something as classical musicians we don’t get to do very often.”
Allison has performed “Rhapsody” a handful of times previously, which also presents an opportunity — to reinterpret the piece — and a challenge — to perform it as well or better than before.
“Now when I’m playing it it’s fun to interpret it a little later in life when I have a little different take on some things. I’m excited to be playing it,” she said.
Gershwin wrote the piece in 1924 to bridge classical and jazz music, breaking the then convention that jazz of his time was too rigid with its highly structured rhythms, by playing with the much more diverse elements available in the classical music realm.
Allison said that when she first performed the piece she did so pretty closely attuned to her classical training. This time, she’s going to let her love of jazz come through.
“I’m not a jazz player but I love jazz. When I’m playing a piece like this I always think I’m probably making it too classical,” Allison said. “In the past I did try to play it more from the standpoint of the classical approach — do everything exactly as written. Now I’m trying to put in my own feeling into it, or stuff I’ve picked up listening to other pianists play it.”
Gershwin’s “Rhapsody” is the most true-red, -white and -blue of the first half of the concert featuring American composers, as the piece was written to combine elements Gershwin saw as epitomizing what he considered to be American popular music at the time — stride piano, novelty piano, comic piano and the song-plugger piano style.
“Things that are supposed to sound like what you might imagine as Chico Marx’s silly piano playing, stuff that sounds a little like you’re in a nightclub, or on a train and the telegraph poles are going by. He was a song plugger when he was only 15 years old, so he used different elements that came from when he was playing on Tin Pan Alley. Just different elements of American music,” Allison said.
After intermission, the concert will head overseas, as if riding on hurricane, to feature Tschaikowsky’s “Symphony No. 4.”
“Typically Tschaikowsky builds and builds and builds until you don’t think it can get any bigger, then this keeps going and keeps going. It’s huge,” Vollom-Matturro said.
It’s becoming a KPO standard practice to include one stretch piece in the gala concert, one in which the orchestra has to surpass their previous limits to achieve.
“It’s a beast. This is our challenge piece,” Vollom-Matturro said. “There’s a little bit of everything in this symphony. It features every section of the orchestra at different times. It’s rhythmically challenging, but the melodies are so lush. We’ve been putting a challenging piece in every year, and each year we rise to the occasion. I am totally blown away by what the orchestra does. It’s totally amazing.”
Vollom-Matturro has been studying the music for over a year now, and the musicians started working on it months in advance, practicing on their own and in sectionals, making incremental progress to the point where it’s now all coming together.
“They work for it,” she said. “They work at it, get frustrated, play it in sectionals, get a little bit more of it — Oh, they’re frustrated, then they get it and they’re happy, then, oh, they’re frustrated again.”
Wait — what was that about the summer music festival? Something about it being fun?
The beast piece is no different, really. It’s just that orchestra musicians might have a slightly different idea of fun, in that laboring away to accomplish something like the Tschaikowsky finale piece counts as enjoyable.
“For us as a community orchestra to take on these big pieces is a challenge for everybody, including myself,” Vollom-Matturro said. “But it’s fun to take a piece where people have to work at it. This is how we get better and better every year. And I’m just continually blown away.”
Kenai Peninsula Orchestra Summer Music Festival
- Noon concerts: July 30 at Veronica’s in Kenai, July 31 at the Soldotna Public Library, Aug. 1 at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, Aug. 4 at the Corner Café in Soldotna, Aug. 5 at Odie’s Deli in Soldotna, Aug. 6 at the Kenai Fine Arts Center, Aug. 7 at the Kenai Community Library and Aug. 8 at Charlotte’s Restaurant in Kenai.
- The Madison String Quartet and Friends will play a chamber concert at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 1 at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna and 7:30 p.m. Aug. 4 at Faith Lutheran Church in Homer.
- The Strings and Sunset ferry ride to Seldovia and concert by the Madison String Quartet leaves Homer Harbor at 11 a.m. or 6:30 p.m. Aug. 3.
- The KPO gala concert will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 8 at Homer Mariner Theater and 7:30 p.m. Aug. 9 at the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium at Kenai Central High School.
For ticket and other information, visit www.kpoalaska.com/events/summer-music-festival/