Archive for February 16th, 2007

The internet is an interesting thing.  I have written several posts about my amazing experiences playing in the University Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra and the Arctic Chamber Orchestra.  I like to look at the “blog stats” portion of my page to see what is bringing people to my blog.  In the last couple of days I have noticed a lot of searches for “Arctic Chamber Orchestra” and “Gordon B. Wright.”  It made me wonder what was going on.

When I was a young lady of 18 attending the University of Alaska, Gordon Brooks Wright was the conductor of the orchestra there.    Of course, that meant he was in a different generation from me.  This morning it occurred to me that perhaps all this search activity was caused by his death and the need for information for an obituary.   So I did my own search, and discovered to my sadness that my suspicion was correct.

Gordon Wright’s body was found by a friend and colleague at his cabin recently.  The article about it can be found here.  One of my best recollections about Gordon can be found on my post about our flight to Gambell on St. Lawrence Island.  He figures in one of the photographs in the post about the fall 1976 tour which included Seward on the itinerary.

But the posts referenced above are more about me than about Gordon.  He was a truly amazing person.  In addition to his musicality, he was also deeply concerned about the environment.  He had a great sense of humor, often lightening tense moments during orchestra rehearsal with jokes.  I still remember his version of the “flight information announcement” as we took off from one of our numerous visits to a gravel strip somewhere in the Alaska bush.  It included a “flight attendant’s unform” and a “wig” (a mop he found somewhere) and had the whole orchestra almost rolling in the aisles in hysterics.

He was conductor when the University Concert Hall was finally completed.  Before that, we used to play our concerts in the Regents’ Great Hall, which is the lobby of the theatre and concert hall.  The concert that celebrated that grand opening included Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.  Since we didn’t have the proper concert cannon, Gordon prevailed upon the artillery at Fort Wainwright to provide the sounds of the guns going off in the finale.  It turned out that the parking lot where the howitzers set up was too far from the concert hall sonically for the sound to be heard within, so a sound system was set up to bring the effect into the concert hall.  When that was finally all arranged, we began the section again.  The cannon went off — “BANG” — followed by horrible crashing, some yelling, and then silence.   We all sat there, rather stunned, wondering what in the world had happened.  Turns out the microphone was too close to the gun and the shock wave of the blank going off blew it right out of the parking lot.  I heard Gordon mutter something about Bernstein never having to go through stuff like this.

Once we happened to have a concert scheduled for Halloween night.  Needless to say, it was deemed imperative that we open the concert with  Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”.   The orchestra was requested and required to memorize the opening of the work, and to keep all plans a deep dark secret.   Against all the Fire Code rules, the exit lights were blacked out in preparation for the opening events that night.   After the audience was settled, when the lights went down in preparation for the concert, they went all the way down.   The whole place was plunged into darkness.   The side doors opened, and a procession began:  a group of people in robes, carrying large candles entered.   There were pallbearers, carrying a coffin.   Slowly, to the sound of a muffled drum beat, the group advanced.  The coffin was placed on trestles at the edge of the stage.   By then the audience was murmuring.  The glimmer of the candles revealed the coffin lid slowly opening.  Suddenly, a figure arose from the coffin.   It stepped up onto the stage, a long cloak muffling it.  The arms came up, the cloak billowing, and the mysterious figure gave the downbeat and we began to play the swirling figures that begin the work.  As the lights came up, Gordon tossed the cloak aside and the concert took off amidst a round of applause.   As we played, our stage manager scurried to the exit signs to remove the masking from them.

Gordon could have programmed concerts consisting solely of easily accessible classics.  But as an educator, he felt it was important to challenge the orchestra as well as the audience.   We played Stravinsky, Webern, Alban Berg, Takemitsu.  Sometimes we were playing the premieres of 20th century works.   He coordinated our concert programmes with the university radio station KUAC; if they were available (and sometimes he would provide them with the requisite recordings) they would play performances of pieces scheduled so that our audience could get familiar with they were going to be listening to.

But it wasn’t all about being avant garde.  There was a concern for the sensibilities of the audience too.  When we were scheduled to perform Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, Gordon was concerned about the rather down and depressing end of it.  We were performing this work in the depth of winter, and he started thinking about the effect this music might have on people as they left the concert and went out into the frigid dark.   His solution was we played the concert in reverse order from what is “traditional”:  we played the symphony first, then we had intermission, then we played the concerto, and finished with the bright and lively overture.

I don’t believe that Gordon Wright was a world famous conductor, although he certainly had the talent and ability.   What he did do was take a group of miscellaneous players of instruments and transform them into an orchestra.   His job was not only to meld us into an ensemble, frequently he had to teach us the music as well, acquaint us with the genre we were attempting to play, make us like an atonal work when what we loved was Mozart.  He used a combination of irritation, flattery, cajolery, shame, passion and relentless repetitious rehearsal to coax performances from us that were frequently astonishingly good.   It was these attributes that made him a great conductor, not just his clear beat and thorough knowledge of music.   

Gordon was a conductor, a violist, a composer, a music historian, an outdoorsman, an environmentalist, a father, a teacher.  He was one of the greatest people I have known:  possibly not famous, but truly a great man.  I wish him Godspeed on the next part of his journey through the universe.

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