PUBLISHED: 4:43 PM on Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Premiere of 'Alaska Symphony' this weekend
Juneau musicians are resurrecting the 1945 "Alaskan Symphony" by Wilson Sawyer, a man who had never seen Alaska but was inspired by the history and geography of the territory.

The "Alaskan Symphony" will have its Alaskan premiere on Saturday, June 14, as part of the 50th Anniversary of Statehood kickoff concert by the Juneau Symphony.

Katie Spielberger photo
  Juneau Symphony conductr Kyle Wiley Pickett, left, leads musicians during a Thursday evening practice leading up to the state premiere of the "Alaska Symphony."
"With the other premieres I've done, the composers are usually there and can answer questions," Juneau Symphony conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett said. Wilson Sawyer died in 1979, having seen his "Alaskan Symphony" performed only twice.

"The Alaskan Symphony" premiered in New York in 1945. But Sawyer retreated from his musical career when his wife developed spinal cancer and it would be thirty years before the piece was performed again, by the Hudson Valley Philharmonic in New York. In 1977, Sawyer revised the symphony, but the revised piece was never performed.

The original 1945 symphony score and recordings of the symphony sat untouched in the Alaska State Library for nearly thirty years until a librarian brought them to the attention of Liz Agnew, former executive director of the Juneau Symphony.

  Wilson Sawyer
Principal Flutist Sally Schlichting and her husband, violinist Bob King, took on the project.

"To go into the State Historical Library as a musician and find a piece of music is just scintillating, so exciting," Schlichting said.

Schlichting and King were skeptical at first, since the piece had only been performed twice in sixty years. Then they heard the recordings.

"It's very American sounding," Shichting said. "It's not a dissonant or atonal piece at all. My initial reaction was [Aaron] Copland."

The symphony has four movements. The third movement uses lyrics from the Robert Service poem "Spell of the Yukon," which will be spoken and sung by baritone David Miller. During the final movement, audiences should listen for the sound of the Northern Lights.

Pickett and the musicians are using hand-written scores for the first two movements of the symphony. Pickett said parts of his score are indecipherable, but all of the musician's parts can be read - albeit with some difficulty.

"There are parts of it that look like they've been written with a Sharpie," Schlichting said.

One of Pickett's graduate students transcribed the second two movements on a computer, creating the only known digital scores for the revised edition of the Alaskan Symphony.

Pickett said he would like to see the Anchorage and Fairbanks orchestras perform the symphony in the future.

"I'll offer it up to them," he said. "It's a worthy piece."

Also on the concert program are two pieces by Alaskan composer Phillip Munger: "Pioneer Day's Rag", a tribute to Alaskan musical history, and "Gordon's Last Ride", a tribute to Alaskan composer and conductor Gordon Wright.

Wright passed away in 2007. Pickett said that since Wright's music wasn't yet accessible, Munger's tribute to Wright was a fitting way to honor Wright, who conducted the Juneau Symphony several times.

Wright died alone in his cabin inaccessible by road, and "Gordon's Last Sled Ride" was how Wright's friend, Alaskan composer John Luther Adams, described the quarter-mile transport of the body in a casket on a sled.

Along with Alaska's musical history, the concert will also reflect Alaska's musical future. The 2007 Young Concerto competition winner Stephen Young will perform a tuba concerto by Vaughan Williams with the orchestra.

To round out the 50th Anniversary program, the concert will begin with the Star-Spangled Banner and end with the Alaska Flag Song.

The performances will take place in the JDHS auditorium Saturday, June 14, at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, June 15, at 3:00 p.m.

Tickets are available at Hearthside Books and at the door.