Choirs from Helena and Capital high schools will raise their voices to sing “Headwaters” at a free, world premiere concert 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21, at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church.
The song about Helena, the Missouri River and surrounding areas written by award-winning singer and composer Moira Smiley was commissioned for them by The Myrna Loy.
But “Headwaters” is more than that.
It’s a song about the singers themselves.
“We feel like we are the young river and telling a story,” said Cassidi Perkins, a HHS sophomore chorus member.
They tell their story not only with their voices and gorgeous harmonies, but embody the river through their gestures and actions.
“Headwaters,” a song cycle written in three movements, is based on the Missouri River and three maps that will be projected on a large screen during the concert.
Movement 1, “Headwaters,”” establishes the quiet, spacious grandeur of a young river at its headwaters, with everything in front of it,” said Smiley, and the young singers “as they begin their journey into the world.”
Movement 2, ”Four Winds,” “moves the energy of the young river into purposefulness and spatial awareness,” Smiley said, with the singers moving through the performance space to create a map.
“They move towards, and call out the names of places to the northeast, southeast, northwest and southwest of Helena -- (Birdseye, Canyon Ferry, Three Forks, Mount Edith).” While, “Helena hums in the middle.”
Movement 3, “Arms Wide,” “finds the river (and the singers) in full momentum,” said Smiley.
“They sing of uniquely Montana things like July snowfall, the Bitterroot Mountains, Ponderosa Pines, and of course, the big, wide sky. Like the Missouri River, the singers celebrate Montana as they move into the wider maps around it.
“The theme of ‘Headwaters’ is resonant with composing music for these young adult students,” said Smiley.
“I wanted these young singers, these young Montanans to feel inspired by the essential elements of their home and energized like a young river at its headwaters” to “explore the unknown.”
Too many young people know the world solely through maps on their cell phones, rather than by a sense of their surroundings and place, she said.
“To me, it feels like sense of place is actually more of a rural value that should be kept alive…. Really knowing where you are is something we don’t celebrate enough.”
And there’s something spectacularly special and energizing about Montana that “Headwaters” definitely celebrates.
The song opens:
“I am headwaters,
I am new above the ground,...
I am the young sound of a river,
I run, I run, I run, I run.”
The song is complex and challenging, say the students and their choral directors.
And at first, the students weren’t sure they liked it.
“I thought in the beginning, it just wouldn’t be good,” admitted Perkins. “There were a lot of crunchy chords.”
But Perkins and her chorus mates were hearing a small piece of the work -- just their own soprano and alto parts.
Last week, when the total chorus gathered to rehearse at St. Paul’s -- it was revelatory.
All the pieces -- soprano, alto, tenor, bass and baritone -- fit together and resonated.
“It just sounded really good together,” Perkins said. ”It’s going to be really good!”
And HHS choir director Molly Steele and Thomas Baty of CHS were impressed with just what their students were able to do.
“Be loud. Be proud,” encouraged Smiley as she stood in the church aisle directing some 150 voices, while Baty moved among the groups to listen and give pointers.
Periodically, Smiley stopped the music to fine tune parts, such as fixing a dropped beat.
Perkins has been thrilled to work with Smiley.
“When she walked in... she just lit up the whole room. When she started talking you could just feel the energy. She wants us to succeed in this song.”
Perkins is impressed this song brings together two rival schools “to present a beautiful piece for Helena. We’re telling a beautiful story about Montana.”
The piece “is incredibly challenging,” said musician and retired HHS teacher Jim Schulz, who was helping rehearsal day. “It’s collegiate level and symphonic level” music.
He hopes not only community members come, but also legislators, adding that the performance is a great example of what collaborative education looks like.
Last week was the first time they all got to hear the music in a performance space, rather than a choir room, said Baty.
The students “were amazed at how cool the music was,” he said. “It’s a piece that is very uniquely Montana and uniquely Helena.
“Moira has an innate ability to capture an elemental, primal feel in her music,” he said. “Headwaters” is “about a place where you come from, a place you call home. It’s very, very meaningful.”
“To have this set for just our choirs alone is pretty inspiring,” Steele said. “The sound world she came up with is just beautiful. ... You can see her love of Montana. ... It’s beautiful. It’s enchanting -- it’s very cool what she has done.”