FAIRBANKS — It’s hard not to have fun at a concert put on by Alaska Cello Intensive. That’s probably because the musicians on stage are having such a good time.
The past two weeks, 24 young cellists from throughout Alaska, Seattle and Chicago participated in the special summer intensive. They practiced hard, and they played hard.
Together, they performed all over Fairbanks as well as in the Denali area. For the first time, they even presented concerts at the Denali Visitor Center and Eielson Visitor Center in the heart of Denali National Park as part of the park’s centennial celebration.
It was the fourth year of the program, spearheaded by parents and in particular by director Rebecca Levey, who has hosted two sons in the program. ACI offers a three-part series of workshops providing focused cello instruction and ensemble work for elementary and college-bound students. But it also provides another important and unique component when the young musicians put away their cellos and dive headlong into Alaska outdoor activities — hiking, kayaking, competing in a blueberry pie eating contest, and more. It’s a nonstop Alaska extravaganza.
Both students and audiences reap the rewards of that combination.
“When students have something to give, some gift that they have prepared, something like a piece of music that clearly surprises or makes an audience happy, they themselves are filled with happiness,” Levey said.
One goal of Alaska Cello Intensive is to spark the imagination and interest of people in the audience. That clearly happened this year.
At Tonglen Lake Lodge, Nelson Ryland of Brooklyn, New York, happened onto the performance with his three kids. It was an experience he will never forget.
“When that first boy (Cirdan Vonnahme, 11) played, I couldn’t help it, I just started crying,” he said. “It is so surprising to be here from Brooklyn, New York, a place you think of as having such art, and to see this here in such a remote place, is shocking. I can’t get over it. This group is fantastic. What an incredible surprise and privilege.”
The cellists, many of whom have played together since they were 4- or 5-years-old, often exchange knowing glances during performances. And if you watch closely, they give a barely concealed enthusiastic hint of what is to come, like they have something they can’t wait to share. Usually it is music worth waiting for, and it has the audience enthralled.
The program exposes cello students to exceptional teaching and great music, bringing in renowned cello instructors from around the country, like Anthony Elliott of Michigan this year.
Will Lyon, 16, participated as a student for the first time, traveling from his home in Chicago.
“This is the most fun I have ever had. Ever,” he said. “I never knew playing in a group could be so fun. Yes, I have groups I play with in Chicago — which is a big, fancy cello town — but it is just nothing like this.”
It’s hard to explain, he said.
“The people here just take you in immediately, and they enjoy each other and you, and it feels really good to be in a group that enjoys what they are doing — especially since what we are doing is actually really hard.”
When all the musicians play together in the cello choir, even the instructors join in. The sound is full and magical. They may not realize it, but the instructors also exchange knowing can’t-wait-for-what-is-next glances with the young musicians during concerts.
“The palpable enthusiasm, love of learning, dedication, support, kindness and love for each other that these young cellists demonstrate every moment of every day is inspiring,” said Melissa Solomon de Freitas, who came from Austin, Texas, to help instruct cellists this summer. “When you combine this magical environment with a high level of musicianship, we have something truly beautiful.”
She said her expectations of the program were far exceeded.
“I was blown away by the level of playing, the energy and excitement and the unwavering commitment from both students and their families,” she said. “Alaska has something very special here.”
And that is exactly what ACI organizers strive to achieve.
“To me, this is the greatest reward of all,” Levey said. “That kids are growing up conscious that they have something of value, something truly beautiful to give away.”
Playing at the concerto level is hard and often tedious work. It can literally take years to learn one piece.
“The reason they can bust out an ‘Uptown Funk’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ with such enthusiasm, is that their brains and fingers can do the work,” she added. “They are prepared. The surprising quality of their performances is proof that an education program combining rigorous academic training with an equally intense outdoor component, is magical and compelling.”
Those who follow this program every year don’t want to ever miss a performance. After the Tonglen Lake concert, a faithful audience member remarked, “You guys get better every year.”
Young cellist Nico Roberts laughed.
“That’s how it’s supposed to be,” he said.
For more information see www.akcellointensive.com.
Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps r at the office 459-7546. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/FDNMKris.