February 29, 2016

Chamber Singers bring out jewels from the past for their 30th anniversary

 Author: Mike Dunham | Alaska Dispatch News


The Alaska Chamber Singers' weekend program included jewels from the works they've commissioned over the years.

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The Alaska Chamber Singers brought out some jewels from seasons past for its 30th anniversary concert, notably work that the group has commissioned over the years. ACS has always excelled vocally and as an ensemble, but one tends to overlook how often they have sought out new music and successfully presented it.

David Dickau's setting of E.E. Cummings' "Love Is" was commissioned in 2006. It features a solo violin obbligato contrasting with lush choral writing that presents the poet's various descriptions of the subject. More straightforward was Anchorage Concert Chorus director Grant Cochran's 2005 arrangement of "Simple Gifts."

 Most rewarding was the chance to hear again three pieces from "Alaska Songs" by Libby Larsen, which ACS premiered in 2011. The songs use lyrics by former Alaska poet laureate Tom Sexton and struck me as more agreeable on a second encounter. "April" opens with an atonal dissatisfaction and the words "another almost snowless winter," (so I guess this isn't the first). But the conclusion is a wonderfully rhapsodic partner to Sexton's exultation at the start of spring, "So this is what it means to be holy." The amusing "Junco's" movement pleased the audience this time as it did at its debut.

This anniversary also brought another premiere, "Litany (for a Year)" by Steven Sametz. The lyrics are a poem by Fairbanks writer Susan Campbell, who was on hand to recite it prior to the performance. One wonders if Sametz was aware of previous ACS commissions since "Litany" had many similarities to the Dickau piece. It also featured a solo violin obbligato, performed in both cases by Kathryn Hoffer. It also presented a list of discreet images/analogies: "When snow sheathes the landscape/When a fire burns all day/When the aurora sifts into the trees/When a friend arrives unexpected." The lines generally alternated between women's and men's voices and the writing was tonal and, again, lush, if a tad repetitive. I enjoyed the ecstasy expressed at the mentions of the sun and the aurora.

The program had Americana ("Tenting Tonight") and pop pieces (a very slow version of Harry Akst's "Am I Blue?"), as well as pieces by modern choral writers Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre -- not necessarily their most alluring work in my opinion, but suited to the group's impressive ability to hone in on difficult pitches to create an atmospheric sound that director David Hagen seems to like.