Juneau Jazz & Classics teams with the trees

Mavis Staples performs.

When you’re talking about Juneau Jazz & Classics it can be hard to know where to start, what with two weeks of music, 14 musical groups and performers, 29 events and 30 years of history.


So let’s start with the last day of the 2016 festival. Let’s start with an Alaskan premiere of a work that’s like nothing Juneau has ever seen or heard before — and a performance that can never be repeated.

Let’s start with “Inuksuit,” by formerly Alaskan composer John Luther Adams.

“It’s a huge departure from what we normally do,” said Linda Rosenthal, Artistic and Executive Director of Jazz & Classics.

Described by the New York Times as “the ultimate environmental piece,” it involves many players (largely percussion) dispersed through an outdoor setting — in Juneau’s case the campus of University of Alaska Southeast on May 21 at 2 p.m.

“Each performance of Inuksuit is different,” Adams has said of the piece, “determined by the size of the ensemble, the specific instruments used, the topology and vegetation of the site, and even by the songs of local birds.”

Each performance is so unique, the musicians won’t even rehearse in their final locations.

“So it just is that one time only, this will never be heard in this way again,” Rosenthal said.

And “Inuksuit” carries fame with percussionists similar to that of “Ode to Joy” among singers and symphonies.

“It’s a famously thrilling experience for percussionists,” Rosenthal said. “When I mention it to professional percussionists, they just light up.

“It’s something that’s usually done as a standalone event, not as part of a festival, and it’s a monumental piece. We’re so excited about doing it.”

And “we” is the key word here. Unlike most of the other performances, “Inuksuit” will be performed by the musicians of Juneau. The piece, involving 99 players in its biggest iteration but sized down for Juneau, will be true community music.

“Really anybody who can read music is invited to be a part of this, and this is something — that concept isn’t something that we normally have in the festival,” Rosenthal said.

The Artists-in-Residence for that week, Third Coast Percussion, are taking charge of organizing the performance. They previously produced their own version of “Inuksuit” and were “bitten by the bug,” according to Rosenthal. “When I asked them it they would stage it here for us, they jumped at (the opportunity.)”

And yet, she said the logistics are enormous. “(Adams) warned me, he said ‘Look, don’t get the idea that this is just happening.’ There are specific things that have to happen. There are certain instruments that we have to have.”

In fact, it’s only the Alaskan premiere because a previous attempt failed.

Rosenthal is mum on why exactly it failed but says just getting together all the instruments needed in a small Alaska town can be challenging. “It requires glockenspiels,” she said, among other things both obscure and large.

Tempted? Anyone interested in joining the “Inuksuit” performance can find an open letter by Third Coast Percussion here: www.jazzandclassics.org/inuksuit.html.

For those of you who prefer just listening to the music, Jazz & Classics has plenty of highlights for you too.

Rosenthal, a violinist herself, is rendered speechless by internet-sensation Roman Kim.

“People know about him all over the world, especially young violinists, and when I heard him with my husband, who also is a violinist, our jaws just … this can’t be… how is he doing that.”

They planned a trip to the East Coast last year around a performance of his in North Carolina.

“It was a small church, similar to what we use here,” she said, “and it was just beyond dazzling and it was beautiful beyond words. The beauty from the first note, he had me. … I would say that he is among the greatest violinists I have ever heard but actually, he is in a category by himself so the word ‘among’ doesn’t work.”

Talking of standouts, Reggie Schapps, the administrator and production manager for Jazz & Classics, brings up R&B and gospel icon Mavis Staples.

“She got a Grammy for performance this year. For performance,” Schapps said. “Not for a record album, her Grammy is for her onstage performance.

“We are so excited,” Schapps said. “Our finale is going to be amazing.”

The Jazz & Classics staff aren’t the only ones excited.

“People are just stopping me on the street, ‘Thank you for bringing Mavis,’” Rosenthal said.

But now that we’ve begun this article at the end, there’s no time to end at the beginning.

“There are so many we’re leaving out right now!” Rosenthal exclaimed. But how could we fit them all in? The festival runs from May 6-21, and Rosenthal and I only talked for an hour. Quartets, jazz, workshops ... for the full 2016 lineup, go to jazzandclassics.org.

• Contact Capital City Weekly design wizard and staff writer Randi Spray at randi.spray@capweek.com.


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