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Redemptive Music in Unlikely Places

Hiland Mountain Correctional Center Women's String Orchestra, Photo by Joanna Knapp

It’s not the average string orchestra that requires a background check of audience members before its holiday concert. Then again, the average string orchestra is not composed of prison inmates.

Alaska’s Hiland Mountain Correctional Center Women’s String Orchestra is holding their annual public concert on Saturday, December 3 at 1:30 pm. Yes, it’s at the prison in Eagle River—hence the background check—and yes, there are some serious criminals in the group, including convicted murderers.

Though billed as a holiday concert, only a few pieces on the program are holiday tunes. The highlight of the 90-minute program is a Haydn “Divertimento”, arranged by Gregor Piatigorsky, whose grandson, cellist Evan Drachman, is playing with the ensemble. Alaska concert-goers may recognize Evan as a regular with the Sitka Music Festival. But don’t get confused here: Mr. Drachman didn’t murder anyone, and he is not incarcerated at a women’s prison! He is just a special guest for this performance.

In fact, the Hiland group enjoys tremendous support from Alaska’s musical community, including from several members of the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, who help instruct the Hiland women and will play with them on Saturday. According to Pati Crofut, a cellist (though not an inmate) and Executive Director of Arts on the Edge, the ensemble’s nonprofit arm, this endeavor is run entirely by volunteers and funded wholly by private donors and ticket revenue.

I’ve not heard the Hiland String Orchestra play (no, not because I failed a background check), but by all accounts you shouldn’t attend this performance expecting virtuosic technique. Few—if any—of these women played a string instrument before entering the prison or joining the group.

Instead, attend the concert if you want to support the program. According to Ms. Crofut, the Hiland ensemble is the only prison string orchestra in the country—or at least the only one with an internet presence. Their philosophy, in her words: “Music has redemptive powers. We don’t know what the byproducts will be, but we do know that everyone feels good when they make music together. This group is teaching women to play well together.”

If you want to see the Hiland String Orchestra: Don’t plan on buying tickets at the door. Remember that background check? Ticket sales close on Friday, December 2 at noon (purchase tickets here). After you buy your tickets, you must email official ID information (e.g.., driver’s license state and number) for each person attending to Ms. Crofut at Tickets are $30, and the event is only open to persons 12 years or older.

And if you fail the background check, or if you’re balking at the ticket price, there’s no shortage of performances in and around Anchorage in the coming week. I’d recommend the US Air Force Band of the Pacific, performing on Tuesday and Wednesday, December 6 and 7, at 7:00 pm in the Atwood Hall of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are free! Now that’s redemptive.