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‘I Had to Respond Musically’: 'Mass' Decries Injustice, Celebrates Fairbanks Four’s Freedom


The Fairbanks Four’s release from prison last year inspired virtuoso Emerson Eads to compose a piece titled “Mass for the Oppressed.” Eads has lined up some impressive talent to perform the piece next month, and he’s arranged for proceeds from sales of the production to go to an organization that represented the four Alaska Native men in court.

Emerson Eads says he was moved to compose “Mass for the Oppressed” to express both sorrow over injustices that led to the imprisonment of the Fairbanks Four and joy at their release last year.

“As an Alaskan – as a Fairbanksan – what do I have to say to this conversation?” he asked, rhetorically. “And what do I have to say to these men, to this injustice? And I felt like I had to respond musically.”

Audience members applause when three of the Fairbanks Four – George Frese, Marvin Roberts and Kevin Pease – arrive for the July 30 performance at Davis Concert Hall.

That came naturally to Eads, a former conductor for the Fairbanks Symphony Chorus and Opera Fairbanks who earned degrees in music at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and is now working on a doctorate at the University of Notre Dame. He says the Catholic-style Mass celebrates the grace the Fairbanks Four have exhibited throughout their ordeal, and afterward.

“It was so moving to me,” he said. “These guys had spent so much of their life behind bars. And yet, if you talk to them, what you get from them is not this hatred or anger, extreme anger. You get this sense of overwhelming thanksgiving, that they are out and they can now experience the world.”

Eads says he felt that generosity of spirit when George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent all thanked him after the world premiere of his Mass last summer at UAF’s Davis Concert Hall. As did Frese’s mother, Veronica.

Emerson Eads greets the Fairbanks Four and their family members after the "Mass for the Oppressed" world premiere.

“I was a puddle of tears,” he said, “because I just … I looked in her eyes and I could see that suffering. But I could see that, like, intensity and joy, and that she knew that her son had got out.”

Activist April Monroe, who’s advocated for the four and chronicled their story in her blog, says they appreciated the Mass and its message.

“It was an interesting and powerful experience that in some ways is difficult to articulate,” Monroe said.

Eads says the piece celebrates universal themes that transcend culture, such as sacrifice and redemption. He says that’s partly why he chose to tell the story in the form of a Mass – and partly because it reflects Pope Francis’ declaration of 2016 as a year of mercy, which Eads recognizes by including text from Francis’ diary in the piece’s central movement.

“Being here at Notre Dame,” he said, “and having the audience down here, I felt like the Catholic Mass, or the setting of the Catholic text, would be the right way to respond, because of the universal nature of that text.”

The Concordia Choir of Notre Dame will sing the Mass, accompanied by a full orchestra and some of the top names in American opera, all conducted by Eads. To help cover the production costs, Fairbanks artist and educator Carol Wilbur has launched an online fund-raising drive.

“I’m just so impressed with not only just the message of the ‘Mass of the Oppressed,’ but also by the universal message that it carries,” Wilbur said.

Once the performance is produced, Eads plans to donate all leftover proceeds from the sale of CDs and downloads to the Alaska Innocence Project. That’s the state branch of a nationwide organization that helps the wrongly imprisoned, including the Fairbanks Four, to get their day in court – a second time.