For once I can tell you the date of a story I am about to relate. This is possible because the pictures that relate to the tale were taken at a time in my life when I was so organized that I actually wrote the date and place on the envelope before I filed it.
The Arctic Chamber Orchestra did not always travel in ancient airplanes, or in flotillas of float planes, or by river boat. Every once in a while, the funding situation was such that all we could afford was a bus. 1976 was one of those years.
If you look at a map of Alaska, even now you will notice that the vast majority of the state is devoid of anything that remotely resembles a road. When we went on a bus tour, we were limited in the communities we visited.
We headed south from Fairbanks, and the first place we were scheduled to perform was in Palmer, in the high school gymnasium. It is never that much fun to perform music in a gym, they usually have an impressive echo. The Palmer High School gym was no exception. In fact, it had one of the most impressive echo systems I have ever encountered. About 15 feet above the main gym floor, there was a balcony that went all the way around the basketball court, overhanging the ouside area of the room below. This balcony had a very nice running track around the outside wall.
We arrived in plenty of time for a warm up rehearsal before the potluck dinner that the Palmer Arts Association was putting on for us. It was during rehearsal that the echo of the gym presented us with certain performance challenges. We were playing a symphony by Haydn (I believe), and in the last movement there was a grand buildup to a dominant fifth chord, which was followed by a radical key change from G major to E flat as I recall. The key change was a huge surprise following that dominant chord, and the effect was really quite cool when you did it in a concert hall. In that gym, with the Huge D Major Chord with it’s seventh reverberating around the room, the effect of the orchestra hitting the surprising E flat major chord that ensued was totally lost in the complete mish-mash of god-awful conflicting harmonies.
It was awful. We stopped to reconnoiter. Gordon had us make the crescendo buildup to the chord, and then we sat there, horrified and awed, while he timed the echoes as they bounced round and round the huge room. It took a full 90 seconds for the sound to die away. “Well, we can’t have THAT grand a grand pause,” he said. “Maybe it won’t be so bad when there is an audience in here.” Our strategy was to approach the chord at only a forte, rather than a fortissimo, wait a not-too-long interval for the sound to sort of die away, and then play on, hope for the best and bash on through. That is exactly what we did.
That evening’s program was rather ill fated anyway. All the echoing made the French overture we were playing less than crisp. There was a “train wreck” in the Concerto. After intermission, the beginning of the second half of our concert was punctuated by rhythmic thudding from the balcony. Some intrepid jogger was availing himself of the running track up there. One of the members of the Arts Association scurried upstairs to get the exerciser to desist, and we were treated to the discussion that ensued. Apparently the person thought we were all done when intermission started, and decided it was safe to get in his run. He was pretty peeved that we had started playing again. He was gently ejected from the building, and we began the symphony over again.
The chord was negotiated without mishap. It sounded rather horrible for a while as the harmonies clashed, but the audience didn’t seem to mind. We finished up to rousing cheers and applause, packed up and got sent off to the homes we were staying in that night.
The next morning, our first destination was Moose Pass, an extremely tiny community between Anchorage and Seward. We were scheduled for a school lunch followed by a matinee concert for the kiddies. Since we had plenty of time to get there, we played tourist along the way and visited the Portage Glacier. Even so, we were quite early for our concert date, and so we found a way to enjoy ourselves while preparations for our lunch were completed:
The lunch was a school lunch, and the concert was a rousing success. Of course, when kids get to get out of class for an Event, they are always quite enthusiastic. However, most of their parents were also in attendance, and they liked us too. We packed up, and got on the bus for the short trip to Seward, where we were scheduled to perform an evening concert.
We were on our way in plenty of time to get there, try out the hall, and sightsee a bit before the potluck and concert. So, when we came around a corner and saw a line of cars stopped ahead of us, we were not overly concerned. The road construction season was winding to a close, and we knew that the crews would be anxious to finish before the big freeze and heavy snows began.
A closer look at the waiting vehicles put a seed of doubt into our minds. None of the cars were running. In addition, about 50 yards ahead of us in the queue there was a group of people who had seen fit to collect some wood and build a fire in the road (which was gravel). They were gathered around it in a convivial group, drinking the contents of their collective thermoses, which seemed to have been adulterated with some sort of antifreeze, judging by their evident high spirits.
Our conductor exited our conveyance and walked off down the road to find out what was going on. When he returned, he informed us that there had been blasting going on ahead, and the road crew was busy removing the rocks that had fallen from the road way. They figured it would be quite a while before they were finished and we could be on our way. Gordon had been able to prevail on the foreman to radio his counterpart on the other side of the blockage and get him to send someone down the road to Seward to apprise them of the situation vis a vis the orchestra.
We sat around for a while, and then an impromptu dance band formed. It consisted of a clarinet, a string bass, a trumpet, a fiddle player and someone banging on a bucket for percussion. And we whiled away the time as we waited dancing Virginia Reels and other folk dances. Some of the other occupants of vehicles joined in. The tall bearded gentleman in the beret and blue jacket is our conductor, Gordon B. Wright.
Eventually, the overburden was moved, and the line of cars began to move. The fire was extinguished, the bus loaded, and off we went, tardy once again.
Seward is a pretty small town, and the word of our predicament had been passed effectively. The concert tinme was pushed back an hour, and we availed ourselves of the spectacular potluck the Arts Association had put on for us: shrimp, halibut, and cracked king crab legs. Replete, we performed another concert for another wildly enthusiastic audience.
And so to bed, farmed out to various members of the community. As I fell asleep that night, I imagined that the gym in Palmer was still echoing faintly, the last notes of our concert still tumbling about in the corners of the balcony.