Columbia Chorale will present an original work next year, bringing it to New York in 2024.
The greatest undertaking in the more than 20-year history of the Columbia Chorale of Oregon comes together under the direction of Artistic Director Alice Rice Boyer.
“The Wisdom of Columbia County”, an original choral work, was premiered by composer Kevin Bryant Lay and lyricist Margaret Trenchard-Smith. The seven-song performance tells the story of Columbia County, beginning with the indigenous Chinook people who originally inhabited the land.
An original work is a departure for the Columbia Chorale, which has generally performed classical works.
But even now, seven months before the show’s local debut on June 16, 2023, the show has already received strong affirmation.
A big stage
Boyer, an accomplished conductor, was invited to conduct a performance at Carnegie Hall, New York’s famous concert hall. She told the production company that invited her, MidAmerica Productions, that she would accept the invitation if she could direct “The Wisdom of Columbia County.” After reviewing Trenchard-Smith and Lay’s work, MidAmerica Productions agreed.
“The Wisdom of Columbia County” will be performed at Carnegie Hall in May 2024.
The Columbia Chorale is a non-auditioning choir. When it comes to a high-pressure performance like at Carnegie Hall, that might scare a choir director.
But Boyer “gets this amazing art from everyday people who love to sing,” Trenchard-Smith said.
“I just believe anyone can sing,” Boyer said.
Boyer remarked, “For me, as artistic director, to look over the sea of this choir and achieve liberals, conservatives; rich, struggling; old and young…standing in this group, producing a unified sound … that’s why I do what I do.”
The choral ensemble, also known as the River City Singers, has been performing since 2001.
For many, music is a kind of “second act”. This is also true of the composer Lay. He had a long career as an engineer before moving to Oregon and taking up music composition full-time about seven years ago.
This won’t be the first time the River City Singers have appeared at Carnegie Hall: the group took part in performances in 2017 and 2019, both times under Boyer’s direction.
But when he was first asked to direct at Carnegie, Boyer could have chosen a classic.
“It 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.
In the wings
Almost four years ago, Boyer and Trenchard-Smith began discussions about commissioning an original work. The Columbia Chorale board agreed and said the work should be for Columbia County.
Trenchard-Smith, a poet and historian, wrote a fragment of a poem that made her stop and think, “I may be the poet I’m looking for,” she said. The board accepted.
Trenchard-Smith wrote the lyrics, most “pouring out of me” in an afternoon.
From a table at the Cathedral Coffee in Scappoose, Lay – then a stranger to Boyer and Trenchard-Smith – was composing the musical “We Met in Moscow” for Portland’s Light Opera. Boyer’s son managed the cafe, noticed Lay’s work, and put him in touch with Boyer and Trenchard-Smith, who were days away from choosing a composer for “The Wisdom of Columbia County”.
The three met at the cafe and instantly connected.
“It felt like we had found our herd,” Boyer said.
Lay signed on as a composer and got to work. Then the pandemic hit.
Lay “could have written a much thinner piece of work. He could have done something much less rare. He gave so much of himself and in a time of personal loss,” 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 for her to stay away from Lay while he composed the score. It was far from Trenchard-Smith’s first instinct, but she took Boyer’s words to heart — and the Lay-produced score confirmed Boyer’s belief.
“When this thing developed, and the magnitude of this work and the quality of it, I thought number one: I have the opportunity to lead on the big stage. Number two: I have the opportunity to bring Kevin and Margaret’s music to the big stage in New York. Number three: I can go to New York with two of my best friends,” Boyer said.
speaking from the heart
“The Wisdom of Columbia County” is a local story, but one that will resonate with other stories from rural America.
“What we hope to inspire in the public is a respect for Native American past and present, a shared history and identity across divisions, and a love for the county’s natural beauty,” wrote Marilyn Allen, President of the Columbia Chorale Board of Directors.
The story begins with a vignette of a mother and her daughter, peeling strips of cedar to make baskets.
Trenchard-Smith is a historian by training. She holds a doctorate. 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. 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 reproduces the sounds of a logging train.
“It’s a lot more energy than some pieces, which tend to feel like rivers,” Lay said.
The organizers aim to develop the choir for the show “Wisdom”. Trenchard-Smith noted that the current choir, while diverse in age, politics, and economic status, lacks racial diversity.
“We want more ethnic, cultural and racial diversity. Columbia County lacks that,” Trenchard-Smith said.
“It’s an underserved community here — financially, artistically and culturally,” Boyer said.
Columbia Chorale will do outreach in English and Spanish and strive to reach a wide range of communities.
The group wants to send a soprano, alto, tenor, and bass from each of the Columbia County high schools—plus anyone who wants to sing—to Carnegie Hall, in an effort to expose young people from Scappoose, St. Helens, Rainier, Clatskanie and Vernonia have opportunities in the arts.
“I would like to have as many people as possible. I would like to have 150 singers on stage,” Lay said.
“The Wisdom of Columbia County” ends with three choruses echoing together, mirroring the flow of a river.
Lay will expand the score for a full orchestra, beyond the vocal, drums and piano scores he started with.
Next year’s task is not just to prepare the choir – after performing other works in December and March – but to find more singers and raise funds to send them to New York, an experience that , according to the group leaders, will provide a powerful cultural experience. experience for singers and led to increased tourism in Columbia County.
You rely on us to stay informed and we rely on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.