By Aubrey Campbell
The Northern Light
The organ in the Arts Building was silent and the recital hall stage empty of artists. Three red chairs and four brass wells of timpani drums waited for the musicians and University Singers to file onstage. The audience in the half-filled house sat in pairs and small groups, mostly loyal family and fans of the singers, who learn under the direction of adjunct faculty Grant Cochran. The University Singers, a performing group of 36 students and Anchorage community members, held its annual fall concert Oct. 15.
Cochran, a tall, black-suited man with curly hair stepped onto the conductor’s platform, and the audience’s murmurs died away. He introduced Sigrun Franzen, the choir accompanist and UAA organ instructor.
Franzen stepped familiarized the audience with Johann S. Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in d minor, a common theme for evil organ-playing villains in films.
“A toccata is a show off piece, it’s fun,” Franzen said. “A fugue has a subject that you can actually follow, but it’s usually not very singable, but you can try.” Franzen then took her seat at the bench next to the waiting page-turner.
The house lights dimmed, the audience focusing its attention on Franzen’s down-turned head, profile veiled. The organ sprang to life.With each of the phrases, Franzen lifted her fingers from the keyboards and the pipes instantly fell silent. As the toccata picked up, her fingers played across the organ’s two keyboards, over and under each other, the erratic phrases linked together by their fast pace and the virtuosic challenge of coordinating hands, fingers, feet and pipes into a single piece.
The toccata ended suddenly, Franzen pulled and pushed several plugs on the organ, and intently bore down into the demanding fugue, Bach’s descending chords crossing over the keys and passing through tonal ranges between the organs ten inch to six foot pipes.
The major chords rose and suspended themselves in a fanfare before the final chord, unexpectedly played in minor, persisted under Franzen’s fingers until she lifted them forcefully. The musicians roused themselves, moving onstage. The house quieted again as four student musicians took their places in the red seats and behind the timpani. From the left, four rows of University Singers filed onto the risers, filling them with black dresses, bow ties and dark blue music folders.
“We’ve been rehearsing (John Rutter’s “Requiem”) since the first day of class,” said first-year tenor Wes Philips, who sang for his high-school choir. “It’s pretty tough, some of the hardest work we’ve done.”
The house went still, the audience, musicians and singers poised for Cochran’s arms to cue their start. With a full-bodied swing of the baton, the artists began the seven-movement piece they’d practiced for almost two months.
The Requiem started with a dissonant cello solo leading the men murmuring “requiem aeternam” (“rest eternal”), while the women responded in ever-rising chords. The choirs’ 36 pairs of eyes were trained on Cochran’s baton as they turned the pages on the first movement, stating “Requiem’s” lyrical theme and singing the recognizable “kyrie eleison” (“Lord, have mercy on us”) of the Catholic liturgy’s mass for the dead. The plaintive oboe’s countermelody rang out in the final chords from student musician Emily Weaver. Weaver and the other musicians volunteered to perform with the singers and rehearsed with them only two times before the concert.
“It’s a compliment to be able to watch people in a professional setting, see them acting as if they were hired,” said soprano Rebecca Cloudy, who’s been singing with the University Singers for four years. “It’s a real compliment to be able to bring in performers and watch them do, essentially, what they’re training to do.”
The audience maintained a polite silence as the conductor and musicians rifled their music to the second movement, “Out of the Deep,” sung in English, which Tenor Philip Mleschnitza said he preferred to the traditional Latin.
“It gets to my heart a lot more because I know what I’m singing in those words,” Mleschnitza said.
Out of the lowest tones came Psalm 130, “Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice,” the final word fading into the third movement.
Third-movement “Pie Jesu” showcased soprano Amanda Farnsworth, who stood out with a pink ponytail, sharing the “Pie Jesu Domine” (“Blessed Jesus, O Lord”) theme with fellow soprano Bridget Sullivan, the two leading the request, “Dona eis requiem” (“Grant it to them, O Lord”).
“I don’t really believe in singing for the dead, but there are parts in it that are just so beautiful. When I’m at home it comes to me and I feel it in my soul,” said tenor Mleschnitza. “Requiem” was written in 1985, dedicated to the composer’s father, who had died a year earlier.
Fourth-movement “Sanctus” and fifth-movement “Agnus Dei” traversed passages from the Book of Common Prayer and mass for the dead, the audience remembering its applause between movements, as Cochran had requested before the concert.
The last two movements also showcased UAA sopranos Jessica Sorensen (solo for movement six, “The Lord is my Shepherd” from Psalm 23) and Kiki Brooks (solo for movement seven, “Lux Aeterna,” from the Burial Service and mass for the dead). The final minor-key notes of quickly transitioned into the final statement of the “Requiem” theme, “Lord, grant them eternal rest.”
The final chord broke, the audience applauded as Cochran bowed and stepped aside for the choir to receive its praise. As Cochran exited, the clapping dissipated as the audience scattered into the lobby, waiting to extol the artists.
“It was great, it’s not often you get to hear good stuff,” said Cathy Olander, aunt to alto Caitlin Burr. “The new organist on staff is great-I always like a good pipe organ, and there’s not enough of those in Alaska.”