By Jenny Neyman
For classical musicophiles, the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra’s Summer Music Festival has lots of musical minutia in which to indulge. And for those who might not know somma from staccato but just want a good show, the festival offers a whole other set of terminology in which to tune:
“Oh my goodness,” for example. Or, “Wow.”
“Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 — oh my goodness. That was a couple years ago,” said Tammy Vollom-Matturro, artistic director and conductor of the orchestra. “Last year was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 — oh my goodness. Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 — wow. We’ve done some major pieces of music, and this year we’re performing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.”
Modest Mussorgsky’s innovative, folk-inspired piano composition is rich with emotion and power, intensified by Maurice Ravel’s orchestration which elevates the piece to the symphony level. Russian composer Mussorgsky wrote it in 1874 in tribute to his friend, Viktor Hartmann, as though Mussorgsky and his listeners were walking through an exhibit of Hartmann’s art and architecture, which itself was heavily inspired by Russian folklore.
“Pictures” is the cornerstone of the orchestra’s gala concert Saturday at Kenai Central High School, which itself is the cornerstone of the orchestra’s two-week music festival. Every year the 30-year-old-and-counting orchestra stretches itself a little bit more, always striving to set a little higher note.
“Gosh, the programs have just gotten more and more difficult and challenging, our players are getting better and we have players coming from the Lower 48 as well as all over the state that come and play with us,” said pianist Maria Allison. “The concerts have just built, the program has built, it’s really grown.”
Grown, but not abandoned the favorite events which have helped build the festival. This year’s event again includes chamber concerts by festival guests the Madison String Quartet, as well as the inclusion of other guest musicians from around Alaska and the country. The Noontime Tunes concerts continue, as well — free concerts performed weekdays at various locations around the central peninsula and Homer. Today’s performance is by visiting guitarist Armin Abdihodzic at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, Thursday has members of Eighth Blackbird at the Kenai Fine Arts Center, and Friday is Jack Will and Sue Biggs at Charlotte’s in Kenai.
“The noontimes concerts are local musicians, all varieties of music, it’s not just members of the orchestra,” Biggs said. “The noontime concerts are always a pleasant surprise that every day there’s something different.”
Something different describes the gala concert, as well, as Vollom-Matturro strives for variety in choosing the program.
“Programming is always difficult because you want to choose music that the audience will enjoy, but you always want to choose music that is challenging and the musicians will enjoy playing,” she said.
This year’s concert starts in the west, travels to the Russian east and ends in Latin America. First up is Ewazen’s big, brassy “Western Fanfare.”
“This piece, when the brass plays, the brass plays in this piece. And they don’t play in all the movements, but the low brass in a couple of movements is huge, absolutely huge,” Vollom-Matturro said.
Next is the multisensory “Pictures at an Exhibition.” The orchestra took a cue from Mussorgsky’s original conceit and invited local artists to submit works inspired by the piece, which will be displayed as the music is played. It’s a fun way to incorporate even more of the local artistic community than is already represented on stage.
“Part of what makes it fun to hear a live concert is when you come in and sit down in the audience and you look up on the stage and you see all these people that you know … and you suddenly hear them all come together and play this incredible piece of music,” Allison said. “… And you think, ‘How can that person have all that in them?’ It’s pretty impressive sometimes.”
The second half of the program travels to Latin America. Vollom-Matturro chose Rodrigo’s “Concerto de Aranjuez” after working with featured guitarist Abdihodzic when she guest conducted the Anchorage Civic Orchestra.
“The orchestra part of this concerto is absolutely gorgeous,” she said. “The musicians like this piece because it’s not too terribly challenging musically. Rhythmically it’s challenging. The third movement is typical Spanish music — two against three — it changes meter often, meaning two beats to a measure, three beats to a measure, changing every other measure.”
Finishing the program is Ginastera’s “Estancia Suite,” which is more modern-sounding than Rodrigo’s classical bent. And what does “modern” mean here? Full of surprises, in this case.
“The first movement is very rhythmic and very — interesting, is, I guess, a good word. It is a great piece of music and it’s very lively,” Vollom-Matturro said. “The second movement is beautiful with a flute solo and a violin solo with the strings playing arpeggios and they sound like a harp. And the third movement’s just — weird. That’s basically all I can say about that. It is so fun and so weird. And then the last movement, wow. Just hold on because it’s crazy.”
In today’s day and technological age it’s easy to get a digital preview of the music, and that’s fine. The orchestra offers a preconcert lecture 45 minutes before the performance for just that reason — to offer more information and familiarity with the music so it can be better enjoyed during the concert. But don’t forget the true wow factor in classical music — the experience of hearing it live.
“This sounds lovely on recordings,” said Jack Will, violinist with the orchestra. “But being there live and hearing a live orchestra and live brass and being able to feel the music, it’s quite an experience.”
The Kenai Peninsula Orchestra’s Summer Music Festival Gala Concert will be held at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium at Kenai Central High School, with a preconcert lecture 45 minutes before the performance. Tickets are available at the door, and online at www.kpoalaska.com.