Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Homage to Juliana Osinchuk - Part One

Juliana Osinchuk will be the featured soloist this Saturday in what might be the finest Anchorage Symphony Orchestra concert of this season. She will perform the most popular piano concerto in the lexicon.

Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 isn't just popular, it is a brilliant work. It is incredibly demanding in a physical sense, too. And audiences can visibly watch the the player portray all aspects of quintessential Russian Romanticism in a visceral display of technique, panache and endurance.

Four Alaska mentors have had a profound influence on my art as a composer. Juliana Osinchuk may be the most important. She was the third of the four to help me. Anchorage composer and theoretician George Belden convinced me in 1984, to begin writing again after a decade of wandering. The late Alaska conductor and composer Gordon Wright believed in my music enough to bring it to life. And, after Juliana began helping me create a series of works that I am very proud of, Mark Wolbers helped bring me into contact with young people with whom I could share my ideas.

Juliana has performed two of my tugboat compositions. I wrote them both with her in mind. They were written eight years apart. Today I'll describe her performance of the first of these.

Semichi Toccata is based on themes from a notebook created in 1982.

In October, 1982, I was serving as a deckhand on the Crowley tug Miriam de Felice in the Aleutians. One afternoon, we were preparing to enter Alcan Cove on Shemya Island, wrapping hundreds of yards of cable onto the giant reel in the stern shelter of the boat.

As we were finishing up, I could see the old skipper, Dale, speaking to the first mate. The mate walked toward the wrapping crew. He said, "Get ready to lay out as much cable as we safely can, as fast as possible. We're clearing shore right now. Be careful!"

It was as flat calm as it gets at the Western edge of the Aleutians in mid-October. We all looked at the horizons. No signs of dark sky or flushing whitecaps. But we did as we were told.

Dale turned the boat away from shore. We began to lay out cable, slowly at first, then more rapidly. Water flew off the recently taken in huge steel fibers.

Within 15 minutes, it was blowing 35. Within 20 - 50. Within 30 minutes, we had a wrap and a half of cable out, it was blowing over 60, and we were on the edge of being unable to control the tow.

The wind settled at about 80, gusting almost 100. I'd been in blows worse than this before, but not in this situation.

Dale, the skipper, was on his last Aleutian voyage before retirement. He was younger then than I am now. As I've been trying to learn more this year about the Bering Sea Trawl fishery, I've thought back a lot on how much Dale knew, and how important that was to our collective survival.

Our engineer - the engine room person - got very seasick. As the new guy on the boat, I took his place, monitoring the status of the engine room. I've never gotten seasick, so the only problem I had with doing the job was keeping my balance in the very rough seas.

Late in the second day of our downwind, barely controlled drift, I wrote a theme in my music notebook, down in the Miriam de Felice engine room.

That was 1982.

In 1994, Juliana Osinchuk asked me for a new composition, after the success of The Fragile Vessel, I had written for her in 1993. I turned to the old notebook and wrote Semichi Toccata.

Juliana was too busy in early 1995 to learn and play this monstrously difficult piece. But in mid-1995, she was awarded a grant to play works by Alaska composers Craig Coray, John Luther Adams and me, and to perform them in several places.

I asked her to add a Seattle concert to the series, at the Fremont Fine Arts Foundry. She agreed.

The Foundry isn't exactly a concert venue. But we made it one. For a whole day, sculptors there helped us steam clean, sweep, clean debris and create a viable concert venue.

A major problem was that in late January, 1996, there was a cold spell in Seattle. We rented a space heater bigger than a couple of snowmobiles to warm the main foundry sculpture bay, as a giant Steinway piano was moved into place.

Juliana had to wear those cool little wool, fingerless gloves, as she warmed up. We were all thinking, "Boy did we screw up thinking this might work."

The foundry filled up. Almost a hundred overflow people were snuck in, as we looked for the Seattle cops to show up. They didn't.

Juliana kicked butt. On every piece.

As an Alaskan, presenting the first serious concert representing John Luther Adams, Craig Corey and myself there, I was quite proud. Listening to and watching Juliana do this for Alaska art, I was brought to tears.

Here's Semichi Toccata, as Juliana Osinchuk performed it that night.


tug Miriam de Felice outgoing in the Aleutians, 1982 - watercolor by Philip Munger
Peter Bevis, Juliana Osinchuk, Philip Munger - at the Fremont Fine Arts Foundry after Alaska composers concert, January, 1996

1 comment:

tewise said...

Thank you for that story very moving and I enjoyed it immensely.