Little notes in a great big song

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The Peak to Peak Chorale Performs Woody Guthrie

By David Josselyn

Local talent in rural Gilpin County can be beautiful as our sunsets or sometimes like a diamond in the rough. This last weekend, May 5 through May 7, the Peak to Peak Chorale proved to be a fantastic sunset. The Chorale’s annual spring musical this year is called “Woody Guthrie Hard Travelin’: Life in America” and used Guthrie’s music and quotes to paint a picture of life in 1930s and 40s western America. Guthrie, most notable for “This Land is Your Land,” was a folk singer that identified with the working class. He grew up in Oklahoma during the dust bowl before “pickin’ up and leavin’ out” to California looking for work. Although penned in the first half of the twentieth century, Guthrie’s songs and words remain relevant to Americans today.

The Chorale, known for their historical plays penned by Cora Jean Leenher, took a large step out of their comfort zone with this performance. Instead of relying on a separate group of actors to carry the story (along with willing volunteers from the choral members), everyone in the chorale took a part, quoting Woody and/or singing a solo. The musical numbers showcased a variety of styles from full-on choral works to each verse sung by different people, at time as duets or trios. The singers were accompanied by five incredibly talented musicians; Bruce Parman on guitar, Bobbi Clayton on guitar, Marith Reheis on banjo, Mike Plante on percussion, and Andre Mallinger on keys. After each performance, the audience was treated to homemade sweets and drinks while mingling with the performers.

The Chorale is co-directed by sisters Jane Wyss and Ann Wyss. Taking the drama reigns is newcomer Colleen Moore whose enthusiasm and joy inspired the choir to reflect the same more than ever before. President Marith Reheis valiantly kept the whole production on track.

Why Woody Guthrie?

When asked why the Chorale took this turn into an unexpected realm, Marith stated, “Cora Jean was much too busy selling a house and moving to write a new historical script. Angela Madura suggested, nearly a year ago, that we try using a ‘canned,’ already written script and song arrangements using Woody’s writing and songs. Right up until New Year’s Day we were trying to make an agreement with the copyright owner to use this… and failed. By then it was so late in preparation time, and we were all so interested in Woody and his life and songs and writings, that we just put together our own version!” Reflecting upon Woody himself, Marith says, “What amazes me is that despite all the grief in his life, the fires that killed family members, the disease that haunted the family – he remained at bottom a happy and optimistic man, as so clearly demonstrated by his songs and his voluminous writings.”

I asked the chorale leaders what was their favorite part of putting on this year’s musical and Colleen Moore replied, “Everyone in the chorale being an integral part of the whole. Not simply singing, but engaging the spirit, the message and the portrayal of the entire experience… and some learning how to do that for the first time.” This sentiment was pretty much universal.

Songs and Words of Wisdom

The songs sung, “Oklahoma Hills,” “So long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh,” “This Train,” and many others are familiar to many, but if not, the tunes are catchy and the choruses easy to pick up and sing along with. And that’s exactly what the audience was encouraged to do and so they did. The wise words of Guthrie reflected the hard times folks are living in today; from working many jobs, giving up hope, finding hope again, and allowing love to permeate your life and the lives of others. The feel of the performance truly was that the audience was not there to watch something, but to be a part of it. Singers strolled in and out of the audience several times and engaged audience members.

Although many favorites, some of the best moments of the evening came when the choir departed from the usual choral anthems and featured musicians, soloists, and speakers. Bobbi Clayton’s take on “Pastures of Plenty” was emotionally charged and heart-felt gripping the audience with the allegorical themes of our pastures of plenty must always be free. “Ludlow Massacre” which has nine verses, was especially powerful as each verse was sung by a soloist, a duo, or a trio, until the finale with the entire ensemble. Marith Reheis’s folky voice perfectly showcased “Do Re Mi” (not from the Sound of Music) telling folks to not come to California in a light-hearted way.

The chorale was on point this year for every performance singing with passion and nuance. You could tell the message of the music and words resonated with them. This year’s performance was something special and I look forward to seeing that quality of entertainment next year!

I asked about next year’s plans and although a musical has not been set, the leaders absolutely would do something like this again. Colleen said, “We can entertain any type of venue in the future and variety never gets old.” Marith added, “Along with revamping the older ‘historical’ programs.” With the broadened perspective from this years’ experience, I expect that even the historical programs will have more pizazz and entertainment value.

The Peak to Peak Chorale is a volunteer non-profit group of folks who enjoy singing and performing. Colleen would like readers to know that there is “A vast spectrum of age, backgrounds, experiences across our troupe,” and “the significant time volunteered and devoted to the enjoyment of creating programs year after year just for the love of it!” Marith reflected, “How much our members have learned over the years! Though all of us could probably carry a tune when we started, many had no experience in ‘tuning’ voices, singing jazzy numbers, reading music, etc.” Well, Marith, they certainly do this year; each member being a little note in a great big song.

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