Russian music stars in KPO's gala concerts

  • Tammy Vollum-Matturo, artistic director for Kenai Peninsula Orchestra, will conduct "Alexander Nevsky," the final piece at the Summer Music Festival Gala Concert.
  • Simon Nissen, founding director of the Kenai Peninsula Singers, will lead the choir to accompany Kenai Peninsula Orchestra in performing "Alexander Nevsky" at the Summer Music Festival gala concerts. Nissen also teaches choir and world music at Kenai Central High School and plays viola with KPO.
  • Mezzo and contralto Rehanna Thelwell joins Kenai Peninsula Orchestra from Michigan, where she just completed graduate studies, as a soloist in the gala concert finale "Alexander Nevsky."
  • The Madison String Quarter, the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra Summer Music Festival's quartet-in-residence, performs in Seldovia in August 2014.
  • David Jacobs, director of orchestral studies at the University of Oregon and conductor of the UO Symphony Orchestra, will conduct the first two pieces of at the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra gala concerts.

The final piece that the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra plays at its gala concerts this August will be the result of two years of passion and planning.

When Simon Nissen, the choir and world music instructor at Kenai Central High School and founding director of the Kenai Peninsula Singers, moved to the Kenai Peninsula about two years ago, he half-jokingly suggested to KPO Artistic Director Tammy Vollom-Matturo that they perform “Alexander Nevsky.”

A year later, KPO purchased the scores for the piece.

Nissen, who also plays viola with KPO, started KPS when his search for a community choir to join in Kenai came up empty. The choir will perform “Alexander Nevsky,” along with KPO at the gala concert, as the piece is a cantata — that is written for orchestra and choir, Vollom-Matturo said.

The gala concerts, held in Homer Friday, August 12 at the Mariner Theatre and in Kenai Saturday, Aug. 13 at Renee C. Henderson Auditorium, are the finale performances to the KPO Summer Music Festival. The festival begins Aug. 1 and includes performances throughout the first two weeks of August in Homer, Kenai and Soldotna. Concerts range from free-of-charge NoonTime Tunes, which take place at local businesses at noon, to evening performances. Attendees will see a mix of KPO and visiting musicians at the concerts events.

“Alexander Nevsky” was written by Russian composer Serge Prokofiev for a 1938 Russian film, and the music itself has a cinematic narrative quality to it that the audience can feel, Nissen said.

“I love it because it’s so dramatic. It has all the elements of a musical story and it captures so much within it music,” Nissen said. “It was a Soviet propaganda film. It was made in the USSR and it was to instill faith and love for the Russian land and for its folklore and was also used to cast their enemies in a very bad light.”

In addition to the choir, KPO has procured guest singer Rehanna Thelwell, who Nissen studied with at Northern Arizona University, to sing the contralto — or the lowest female singing voice — solo in the sixth movement. Thelwell completed her masters at the University of Michigan and has a voice that Nissen thought of immediately for the part.

“The sixth movement of the cantata is for contralto and orchestra and it is a mournfully sad part of this music because the one before it is the battle on the ice. You can hear the choir screaming and yelling and then the contralto wanders through the orchestra and sings this sad solo called ‘The Field of the Dead’ about the bodies from this war,” Vollom-Matturo said. “We looked for a good contralto and Simon knew of her ... It’s a pretty cool thing that we have her.”

Vollom-Matturo will conduct “Alexander Nevsky,” after the first two pieces also by Russian composers, Mily Balakirev’s “Overture on Three Russian Folk Songs” and Alexander Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances,” are conducted by guest conductor David Jacobs. Vollom-Matturo met Jacobs at a conducting workshop he taught in Oregon. Jacob’s knowledge of Russian composers informed the first half of the program.

“Dr. David Jacob said, ‘I’d love to come to Alaska and conduct’ and I said ‘cool’ because he’s really good and I told him we’d be doing ‘Alexander Nevsky’ and he said, ‘How about all Russian composers?’ That’s how we got on the theme — all Russian music this summer,” Vollom-Matturo said. “It’s kind morphed into this awesome concert.”

Anna Frost can be reached at


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