Soprano Christie Conover inspired the program with a Cowboy Song
By Peter Alexander Feb. 20 at 6:30 p.m.
The next concert of the Longmont Symphony started with, of all things, the notorious outlaw Belle Starr.
The program includes composer Libby Larsen’s Cowboy Songs, a set of three songs for voice and orchestra that opens with “Bucking Bronco,” a text loosely attributed to Starr. A warning to young girls, the text concludes “Now all young maidens, where e’er you reside/Beware of the cowboy who swings rawhide/He’ll court you and pet you and leave you to go/In the spring up the trail on his bucking bronco.”
Elliot Moore, conductor of the Longmont Symphony, heard soprano Christie Conover sing the song at an audition and fell in love with it. “She sang stunningly beautifully,” he says. “I thought (the song) was fantastic and I thought that she really sold it.”
Deciding that he wanted to have Conover perform the Cowboy Songs with the LSO, Moore thought that another piece that would fit her voice would be Samuel Barber’s sweet recollection of childhood, Knoxville, Summer of 1915.
With an American theme starting to come together, he decided that Aaron Copland’s ballet Rodeo would be the perfect companion to the Cowboy Songs. The final piece of the puzzle—or the program—is an American piece that is little known but that Moore really wanted to present, the Symphony No. 2 of Robert Kurka.
“It is an amazing American symphony that has been forgotten and deservers a spot in the repertoire,” Moore says. “Kurka was born in 1921 and died at 36, in 1957. He was being compared to Copland, (as) the next great American composer, but he died, so there’s very little of his work performed.”
The Symphony is a relatively short work in three movements. “The first movement has a gravitas to it, the second movement has kind of a lilting, dance feeling to it, and the last movement is just super, super joyful,” Moore says. “It’s been recorded I think twice, and it has remained on the shelf for 60 some odd years. It’s exciting that we have an opportunity to bring it out.”
A graduate of the CU Boulder College of Music , Conover relates naturally to the Cowboy Songs. “I’m from Montana, and a lot of my family is still out on the farm and the ranch,” she says. “My parents both grew up on farms and ranches, and I grew up going to the farms and ranches of my family.”
After the first song, which Moore describes as “cute and fun,” the second has a bluesy quality “It’s called ‘Lift me Into Heaven,’ and it is more (about) the physical aches that come from working on the farm. It’s not about dying and going into heaven, simply ‘I need you to lift me into bed so that I can go to sleep after a hard day.’ That to me sounds like what heaven is in this song.”
Moore and Conover both describe the third song as “sassy.” It’s very short, about Billy the Kid and all the people he shot, “one every morning.” “Billy was a bad man,” the song states. “One day he met a man who was a whole lot badder/And now he’s dead and we ain’t none the sadder.”
As a true Westerner, Conover knows that some of the wild-west mythology is exaggerated. “But there has to be some truth to legend, in order for the stories to take shape,” she says. “I think there’s some truth to it.”
She also believes American audiences should hear music of their own culture on concerts. “It’s our repertoire, and it is important that we experience our own culture through music,” she says. “This is who we are.”
For many Americans, so is Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a setting of James Agee’s description of a idyllic summer evening on the front porch and in the back yard with his family. It was published as a prologue to Agee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiographical novel A Death in the Family.
Ostensibly the description of a time of happiness, the poem takes on a darker meaning in connection with the novel, which relates how the death of the author’s father shatters the family. It is both a depiction of innocence through the eyes of a child, and a premonition of the loss of innocence, through the eyes of the adult recalling childhood.
“I think that Barber did such an incredible job that the sense of nostalgia and innocence paired with loss of innocence comes out in the harmonies,” Moore says.
Barber paints the images of the summer evening in the music. “As an example, the rocking of the rocking chair is painted with a triplet figure in the flute,” Moore says. “(The text) talks about street cars being noisy in the traffic, and he puts in the French horn that makes a clanging sound. There’s a lot that Barber has put into the music to really bring the text into musical relief.”
Since beginning her study to Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Conover has found a deeper meaning from becoming a mother. “I have a 5-month-old now, and it’s a child talking,” she says. “He speaks about how his mother and his father are good to him, and how amazing that we are put on this earth at the same time, and I kind of easily well up.”
She read the text over and over before learning the notes. “It has to be me singing the (words of the text), whether the specific part I think about my son, or the part I think about my own mother and my own memories. You have to have those sensations in your mind as you’re singing it.
“If you’re feeling it and you’re visualizing it, the way the music comes out of you is different. That’s what’s so great about live music!”
Following up the cowboy theme of Larsen’s songs, Moore and the LSO will perform the entire score of Copland’s ballet Rodeo. The ballet tells the story the courting of a shy cowgirl during a party with the ranch hands. The score includes a number of folk songs and fiddle tunes from American history, including “If He’d be a Buckaroo,” “Sis Joe,” “I Ride an old Paint,” “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” and “Miss McLeod’s Reel.”
“We’re performing is the complete ballet, which includes a movement that features a saloon-style solo piano called ‘Ranch-House Party,’ and that movement is generally omitted,” Moore says. “There’s also a big clarinet solo in the ‘Ranch House Party’ that is rarely heard.
“I think it’s neat that we’re bringing the complete music of the ballet to Longmont.”
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Sounds of America
Longmont Symphony Orchestra, Elliot Moore, music director
With Christie Conover, soprano
Robert Kurka: Symphony No. 2 (Colorado premiere)
Samuel Barber: Knoxville, Summer of 1915
Libby Larsen: Cowboy Songs
Aaron Copland: Rodeo
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb 23
Vance Brand Civic Auditorium, Longmont