'The Wisdom of Columbia County' to showcase local history at Carnegie Hall
The largest endeavor of the Columbia Chorale of Oregon's over 20-year history is coming together under the leadership of artistic director Alice Rice Boyer.
"The Wisdom of Columbia County," an original choral work, was created by composer Kevin Bryant Lay and lyricist Margaret Trenchard-Smith. The seven-song performance tells the story of Columbia County, starting with the indigenous Chinook peoples who originally inhabited the land.
An original work is a departure for the Columbia Chorale, which has typically performed classic works.
But even now, seven months before the show's local debut on June 16, 2023, the show has already received a strong affirmation.
A grand stage
Boyer, an accomplished conductor, was invited to conduct a performance at Carnegie Hall, the famed New York City concert venue. She told the production company that invited her, MidAmerica Productions, that she would accept the invitation if she could conduct "The Wisdom of Columbia County." After reviewing the work of Trenchard-Smith and Lay, MidAmerica Productions accepted.
"The Wisdom of Columbia County" will be performed at Carnegie Hall in May 2024.
The Columbia Chorale is a non-audition choir. When it comes to a high-pressure performance like in Carnegie Hall, that could frighten a choir leader.
But Boyer "elicits this incredible art from regular folks who love to sing," Trenchard-Smith said.
"I just believe everybody can sing," Boyer said.
Boyer remarked, "For me, as an artistic director, to look over the sea of this choir, and realize liberals, conservatives; wealthy, struggling; aged and youthful … standing in this group, producing unified sound … that's why I do what I do."
The chorale ensemble, also known as the River City Singers, has been performing since 2001.
For many, music is a "second act" of sorts. That's also true of the composer, Lay. He had a long career as an engineer before moving to Oregon and making the jump into composing music full-time roughly seven years ago.
This won't be the first time River City Singers will appear at Carnegie Hall: The group participated in performances in 2017 and 2019, both times under Boyer's leadership.
But when invited to conduct at Carnegie for the first time, Boyer could have chosen a classic.
"That would have been a safe choice and she would have had all the luster to herself," Trenchard-Smith said.
But instead, Boyer took a risk.
Behind the scenes
Nearly four years ago, Boyer and Trenchard-Smith began talks about commissioning an original work. The Columbia Chorale board agreed and said the work should be about Columbia County.
Trenchard-Smith, a poet and historian, wrote a fragment of a poem that made her pause and think, "Maybe I'm the poet I'm looking for," she said. The board agreed.
Trenchard-Smith wrote the lyrics, most of them "pouring out of me" in one afternoon.
From a table at Cathedral Coffee in Scappoose, Lay — then a stranger to Boyer and Trenchard-Smith — was composing the musical "We Met in Moscow," for the Light Opera of Portland. Boyer's son was managing the coffee shop, noticed Lay's work, and connected him with Boyer and Trenchard-Smith, who were days away from picking a composer for "The Wisdom of Columbia County."
The three met at the coffee shop and instantly connected.
"It was like we had found our herd," Boyer said.
Lay signed on as composer and got to work. Then the pandemic hit.
Lay "could have written a much thinner work. He could have done something much less rare. He gave so much of himself, and at a time of personal losses," Trenchard-Smith said.
"I'm not a writer, I'm not a composer. But when I can see that energy happening, that's when I get excited," Boyer said.
Boyer said it was important to her to stay out of Lay's way as he composed the score. That was far from Trenchard-Smith's first instinct, but she took Boyer's words to heart — and the score Lay produced backed up Boyer's belief.
"When this thing developed, and the magnitude of this work and the quality of it, I thought number one: I get an opportunity to conduct on the big stage. Number two: I get an opportunity to take Kevin and Margaret's music to the big stage, to New York City. Number three: I get to go to New York City with two of my best friends," Boyer said.
Speaking from the heartland
"The Wisdom of Columbia County" is a local story, but one that will resonate with other stories of rural America.
"What we hope to inspire in audiences is a reverence for the Native American past and present, a shared history and identity transcending divisions, and love for the natural beauty of the county," Columbia Chorale board chair Marilyn Allen wrote.
The story starts with a vignette of a mother and daughter, peeling cedar strips to make baskets.
Trenchard-Smith is a historian by training. She holds a Ph.D. in late antiquity and Byzantine history.
Trenchard-Smith said she draws on a range of inspirations in her storytelling.
"But with poetry, it's not a deliberate thing. I don't plot it out. It comes when it comes," she said.
One song, "The Pioneer and Settler," was inspired by Trenchard-Smith's own experience with loss.
In "The Logger," a song about the local timber industry, Lay's lively score replicates the sounds of a logging train.
"It's a lot more energy than some of the pieces, which tend to be river-like," Lay said.
Organizers aim to grow the choir for the "Wisdom" performance. Trenchard-Smith noted that the current choir, though diverse in age, politics and economic status, lacks racial diversity.
"We want greater ethnic, cultural and racial diversity. Columbia County is lacking in that," Trenchard-Smith said.
"It's an underserved community here — financially and artistically and culturally," Boyer said.
Columbia Chorale will be doing outreach in English and Spanish and working to reach out to a wide range of communities.
The group wants to send a soprano, alto, tenor and bass from each of the high schools in Columbia County — plus whoever else wants to sing — to Carnegie Hall, in an effort to expose young people in Scappoose, St. Helens, Rainier, Clatskanie and Vernonia to opportunities in the arts.
"I would love to have as many people as we can. I would love to have 150 singers on stage," Lay said.
"The Wisdom of Columbia County" ends with three choruses echoing each other, mirroring the flow of a river.
Lay will expand the score for a full orchestra, beyond the voice, drum and piano scores he started with.
The task for the next year is not just to prepare the choir — after performing other works in December and March — but to find more singers and raise the funds to send them to New York, an experience that group leaders believe will provide a powerful cultural experience for the singers and lead to a boost in tourism for Columbia County.
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