Come Join The Wagon Train!
Would you move across the country for the promise of a new life? Would you still do it if you had to move by wagon? That is what Benjamin and Nancy Kelsey had to decide for their family nearly two centuries ago.
Pioneer Songs is a concert piece telling the story of the first pioneers and their journey to California in the early 19th century. As it stands now, it is a beautiful, expressive piece for orchestra, choir, soloists, and narrator. But it didn’t start out this way.
Robert Marquis, then 47, had been taking piano lessons with Eric Houghton. After learning a few of Eric’s compositions, Robert conceived the idea for a show about early western settlers. The original idea was for four soloists, narrator, and piano. Robert wrote the lyrics and narration while Eric composed the music. The piece premiered in Bristol Chapel at Westminster Choir College in 1993. The recording of that performance was burned into 1000 CD’s and 1000 cassettes, ready to be purchased.
However, just when the future of Pioneer Songs seemed the brightest, Eric received a call from Robert’s wife one January morning in 1994. Robert had passed away from a heart-attack the night before. The project came to a screeching halt.
23 years after its initial premiere, the original soprano soloist contacted Eric about possibly performing the show in the Congo. This idea breathed new life into the piece. Over the next six months, the original piece was transformed into the grand concert piece it is today.
Pioneer Songs contains 15 songs in 2 acts. The first act focuses on the preparation for the journey ahead while the second act follows the travelers across the country, over prairie, desert, and mountains. The music perfectly captures that of early American folk-music while still being rooted in the western classical music tradition. The vocal lines are delightfully challenging for the singers and beautifully evocative for the audience.
In Beckoning, Ben (Tenor Soloist) hears the calling of freedom from the west. He weighs his options through lyrical, sweeping melodies. The choir and the other soloists urge him to come along with them and to “join the wagon train.” In Preparation, the farm is filled with excitement as each person tries to pack their entire life onto a covered wagon the size of a grand piano. The song ends in complete chaos as everyone proudly declares all the items they “need” for the trip. Taking a break from the pandemonium on the farm, Ben and Nancy, through beautiful, flowing melodies, say their Marriage Vows, promising to love each other for all of eternity. The act ends with Departure as the soloists begin their march to the west, tentatively at first, but more and more confident with each step they take.
In act two, the REAL star of the show is presented: The obstacles and elements of the grueling journey itself. Each song paints a picture of the travelers’ surroundings. In the Prairie, you can almost smell the air after the rain. In the Desert, Nancy (soprano soloist), exhausted and fearful, gathers strength by remembering Ben’s promise to her in Proposal (back in act 1). Just as they make it out of the seemingly unending desert, they are forced to ascend straight up into the Mountains, with wagons, oxen, and children in tow.
This piece is rich with imageries and colors. When asked about his inspiration, Eric Houghton immediately brought up his former piano teacher, Harold Zabrack. “Always think orchestrally,” Harold would tell Eric. And so he did, and the result is a series of stunning auditory paintings.
In May 2018, Pioneer Songs had its orchestral debut. I was lucky enough to have been chosen as the soprano soloist for that performance. Being in it was a pleasure and an honor. I thoroughly enjoyed preparing and performing such a brilliant piece. I was ecstatic when I was asked back for the next performance, this time at the Patriots Theater in Trenton, New Jersey, a gorgeous theater that sits 1850. The concert is on November 10th, 2018, at 7:30pm. You can reserve your tickets at www.communitymusical.com. Come experience this amazing piece of music for yourself - you’ll be glad you did.
To learn more about Pioneer Songs, please visit www.pioneersongs.com