Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Celebration in song — Sitka Summer Music Festival has classic take on statehood

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

The highlight of Thursday’s concert by the Sitka Summer Music Festival musicians in Soldotna may well be a piece written by Paul Rosenthal, the festival’s founder and artistic director, but not as far as he is concerned.

Rosenthal, a violinist, wrote an arrangement of the Alaska flag song for the state’s 25th anniversary. He was asked to perform it again this year in honor of Alaska’s 50th anniversary, so he wrote a set of variations on the piece, “Bravura Variations on ‘Alaska’s Flag,’” to be played by violin and piano.

“It’s sort of funny, when I talked to Paul about playing this in the concert he kind of huffed and said, ‘Oh all right, and we’ll play some music by real composers, too.’ He’s very humble,” said Maria Allison, with the Performing Arts Society, which is sponsoring the concert.

The irony being that Alaskans would consider Rosenthal quite real, no matter what he was composing. He is well-known through his connection with the 36-year-old Sitka music festival, and as a performer throughout the state due to his interest in bringing classical music to even the most remote Bush communities.

He and his fellow Sitka festival performers have included a stop in Soldotna in their winter for more than 10 years now, Allison said.

His piece being a play on something familiar, along with Rosenthal’s talent for composition and performance, should make it even better received.

“It is very virtuoso. It makes you think of something played by Paganini. It’s just really flashy and spectacular and shows off all the violin technique,” Allison said.

The grandeur of the piece makes sense, considering Rosenthal’s thoughts on Alaska, his adopted home state since 1969. In the liner notes of the “Bravura” recording, he wrote, “For a concert violinist to live in Alaska seemed an odd notion back then, and yet the place had irresistible attractions for my restless spirit: Nature, of course, so grand and varied, and Adventure, which beckoned from the side of every road, the window of every plane, and the vast waters around every boat I would take to cover those huge distances.”

Along with Rosenthal, cellist Armen Ksajikian and pianist Arnulf von Arnim will perform. All three are familiar to central Kenai Peninsula audiences from their previous tours with the Sitka festival.

“They have a huge following, and all three of them have played here many times,” Allison said. “… When the three play together it’s always really exciting because all three are just so fabulous.”

The “real” composers featured in the concert will be Bedrich Smetana and Ludwig van Beethoven. “Piano Trio in G Minor, Op. 15,” by Smetana, called the “father of Bohemian music,” is a powerful work that progresses from somber to energetic themes.

In the Beethoven trio, “Piano Trio in E Flat Major, Op. 70, No. 2,” a slow, sedate introduction quickly gives way to a more lively, high-spirited aura.

One of the cornerstones of the Sitka music festival is spreading exposure to and appreciation of classical music. That’s why they tour in the first place, and especially why they like to include stops at schools.

“Usually if school is in session when they are here they have done school concerts. Kaleidoscope, Sterling Elementary, just different schools around the community,” Allison said. “Tustumena Elementary is the lucky one this year.”

The Performing Arts Society honors that spirit of outreach by maintaining a low student rate at the concert, $5 a ticket for anyone in school — whether it’s children or college students. Even general admission, at $15 a ticket, is low compared to concert prices when the group performs in Anchorage.

“It’s a good deal,” especially considering everything the group puts into their performances, Allison said.

“Paul and all the musicians who come with him are very anxious to communicate about music with people, not only in playing it but talking about it and making it really fun for the audience.

“They’re really great about talking about their music and education as well as entertaining.”

The performance is at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna. A free reception will be held after the show. For more information about the musicians, visit www.sitkamusicfestival.org.

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