Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Creating a classic

How Brown and the Caritas Chorale conquered Idaho

Creating a classic

Dick Brown and David Alan Earnest arrive at the top of Lemhi Pass, where Lewis and Clark crossed over into Idaho.

"We proceeded on to the top of the dividing ridge from which I discovered immence ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered with snow."

— Meriwether Lewis, Aug. 12, 1805

Although not quite as arduous as that of the story he strove to tell, Dick Brown's journey through "Immence ranges of High Mountains" has at times felt comparably exhausting. "The work has become a pun for me," chuckled Brown. "Because it's huge. It's a big undertaking."

It's an undertaking that began nearly 18 months ago. The idea to celebrate the Lewis and Clark expedition's bicentennial by commissioning an original choral composition for his choir, Caritas Chorale, was not a startling one for the indomitable Brown.

Idaho's history has long fascinated the Southern-born gentleman. "I've always been a great fan of Lewis and Clark. I would spend time going and looking at places they'd been through Idaho and every year I became more and more impressed at the accomplishment of that journey."

On one trip, when he stood on Lemhi Pass between Montana and Idaho, he recalled the words Lewis recorded in his journal when he first glimpsed the great expanse of Idaho from the Continental Divide:

"We proceeded on to the top of the dividing ridge from which I discovered immence ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered with snow."

In that moment of recollection Brown determined to find a way to honor those words.

"I knew the bicentennial was coming up, and it just seemed logical to find someone from here who could write the story and someone from here who could write the music to reflect what had happened to them within the state of Idaho."

His first port of call was Diane Josephy Peavey, whom he approached to write the libretto. Although Peavey is not a native of Idaho, her Idaho credentials are impressive. She has lived here for 24 years, is married to former state Sen. John Peavey, and for 14 years she has been writing and recording stories weekly for Idaho Public Radio on ranch life and the changing Western landscape. She is also a co-founder of the Trailing of the Sheep Festival.

"Diane was a given. She's someone whom I'd met and admired very much, because of her work with preserving some of the stories of the West."

The second search was for a native Idaho composer. "I asked friends around the state to give me names of Idaho composers that I might approach about this and David Alan Earnest's name came up several times," explained Brown. "At first he rejected the idea because it was a huge work. But I kept after him until he said yes!"

Now it was up to these combined talents to bring Brown's vision to life. The players met in March 2004 to hash out the key elements of the story. They decided to focus on Sacajawea.

"We knew we wanted to start with Sacajewa as the main focus and she would be the solo, she would tell the story," explained Peavey. In the final piece, "I have her at almost the end of the time in Idaho, looking back at their experiences and then wondering what would lie ahead for her and for Indian peoples.

"We just started with that framework and then I put together a long poem and Dave has done extraordinary things to bring that to life."

In order to ground the audience in Sacajawea's thoughts, Peavey wanted to start the libretto with Shoshone language. Fortuitously, Earnest stumbled across Rose Ann Abrahamson, Sacajawea's great-great-great-grand niece, who kindly provided him with the Lemhi Shoshoni pronunciation of "listen carefully," the phrase that starts the work.

The title comes from those words of Lewis when he reached Lemhi Pass. Peavey herself took a trip to Lemhi Pass.

"Standing at the site where Lewis saw 'immence ranges of high mountains,' I could feel his joy and despair at the sight. I could also understand how Dick Brown was deeply affected by the words of the explorer standing at this spot," wrote Peavey in a piece titled "Inspiration and Creation: The Making of a Musical Composition."

"It was a view of ridgeline after ridgeline, breathtakingly beautiful. But it was the spot at which Lewis thought he might see the ocean or at least the rivers flowing west that would take his 'Corps of Discovery' to the Pacific.

"He saw neither, and his journey was suddenly and seriously in jeopardy. Certainly this must have been a terrifying moment for him. But this was Idaho and these mountains would be his Idaho experience."

In February of this year, I sat between the young composer Earnest and the estimable Peavey on a church pew at the first rehearsal of "Immence Ranges." As they, Brown and the assembled Caritas Chorale waited to hear the libretto and a synthesized version of Earnest's notes for the first time, my benchmates could barely contain their excitement.

"She sent me 12 pages of text. I looked at it and went 'Holy mackerel!'" exclaimed Earnest. "But then he converted it into this!"

Peavey cried with delight, gesturing with the thick manuscript in her hand "which is amazing, just amazing!"

I probed Earnest for his feelings, being here at the first step into the world of his creation—for he appeared slightly overwhelmed.

"No, not overwhelmed just a little bit nervous at this point. It's not quite out of my hands yet. The first rehearsal is always when you pick out all the little mistakes."

He continued, somewhat apologetically given the present company, that it had been a real challenge working with the words to create a musical narrative.

"It's not a song and it's not a poem. So I just had to take her words and try to figure out some way to make it into musical sense. I had to cut a couple places because it was getting too long--it's 45 and a half minutes!"

Later, Brown concurred. "It's an extremely difficult piece, but they (the chorale) are really rising to it. It's interesting to rehearse a piece when the composer comes to watch and the librettist is sitting right there in the tenor section singing along."

"One of the things that makes the work so difficult is it's not set as poetry, it's set as a narrative. The composer has set it with speech pattern rhythms, so it's not your standard la-di-da-di-da stuff. It is definitely something that follows the truth of the word."

This is what Earnest believes makes "Immence Ranges of High Mountains" a potential classic.

"The piece has staying power because it has a lot of new stuff in it. It will be difficult, but once they get used to it, it will be really cool!"

Next week: The music of "Immence Ranges."

"Immence Ranges of High Mountains"

The premiere performance of "Immence Ranges of High Mountains" takes place Saturday, May 21, at 5:30 p.m. at the Church of the Big Wood in Ketchum. An encore performance will be at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, May 23. Sunday, May 22, at 6 p.m., the piece will be presented at the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Idaho Falls.

The Chamber Choir of Idaho, with members from Idaho Falls and the Wood River Valley, will participate with Caritas Chorale in performing this concert.

Caritas concerts are free to the community, with donations gratefully accepted.


Thursday, May 12, at 7 p.m. in collaboration with The Community Library, Caritas Chorale will present a free program featuring two choruses from "Immence Ranges of High Mountains," with a small ensemble, soprano soloist Katherine Edison and keyboard in The Community Library's Lecture Room, Ketchum.

The composer, David Alan Earnest, will give a talk on the creative process and his inspiration in writing the piece. In addition, the program will include a presentation by Chris Millspaugh, regional history librarian, on historical perspectives of the Lewis and Clark expedition's experiences in Idaho, as well as several selections of Native American flute music.

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