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Mahler's Symphony luncheon

Eliza Wiley Independent Record - Memebers of the Salt Lake City Children's Choir wait for slices of 10-foot-long submarine sandwiches donated by Paula Vander Jagt, owner of Van's Thriftway, during a luncheon held at the Cathedral of St. Helena Thursday.

Big Sky hospitality is being put to the test this week — with more than 430 musicians and singers performing Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand Saturday night at the Helena Civic Center.

It has some 255 guests dropping in on Helena, Wednesday through Sunday, to accomplish this monumental musical work, which is rarely performed in the United States.

Numerous generous Helenans have stepped up to the challenge — from providing food to sharing their homes.

Among them is Paula Vander Jagt, owner of Van’s Thriftway. Her deli workers were up in the wee hours of Thursday morning making 10-foot-long submarine sandwiches to be cut up and served to 300 lunch guests later that day. There were also numerous fruit trays in the works.

Today, they’re making 300 lunches of fried chicken, pasta and potato salad for choral members.

As is her practice, Vander Jagt does it with little fanfare, saying she doesn’t want to “blow her own horn.”

Her deli manager Jeanie Wymore, however, piped in saying, “I’ll blow her horn.” Wymore added, “Her employees are always amazed at how much she does for the community. We’re amazed every day.”

In fact, today, the deli is not only making the 300 free lunches, but also all the hors d’oeuvres for the Montana Military Museum wine fair in the evening for some 400 plus guests. Once again, it’s all donated.

“It’s not our first rodeo,” Vander Jagt said, confident her deli staff was up to the stress.

Meanwhile, symphony logistics coordinators are relying on spreadsheets, sticky notes, maps and schedules to keep the rest of the production smoothly sailing.

Cathy Barker, a local minister and second alto in the Symphony Chorale, took charge of housing.

“I need 94 beds,” she said last Thursday. She already had 90 lined up. A doll-sized mock-up of a bedroom sat on the table in front of her at the symphony office. She’s been recruiting folks over the past few months by saying, “If you have a guest room larger than this, we could use your help.”

Each visitor she’s tracking has a card color coded with sticky notes, indicating male or female and crucial details such as — no cats, no stairs, vegetarian diet and transportation needs.

Barker also has all their housing locations marked on a map with color-coded pins, indicating how many riders at each house need a lift to rehearsals and the concert.

The LDS Church stepped in to provide housing for the 40-member Salt Lake Children’s Choir, she said.

Yet another coordinator focused on housing for the out-of-town orchestra members.

“I’m relying on the community to provide hospitality,” said Barker. She’s found that when she travels in Montana, she’s typically staying at someone else’s home. “It’s a Montana thing in my mind that you welcome people into your home.”

Leatrice Lily, symphony director of artistic planning, has multi-page schedules listing times and locations of every rehearsal, meal, free-time break and warm-up period — right down to the performers’ departure Sunday morning.

She’s also ensuring the eight guest soloists’ flight arrangements, motels and transportation are all in place.

Last week, she was recruiting last minute substitutes for six orchestra members who suddenly couldn’t play — no easy job, considering the sheer size and complexity of the Mahler work.

Also working behind the scenes, making sure music stands, musicians and singers are all arranged where they belong is Scott Kall, bass trombone player in the orchestra and the concert’s operations manager.

For weeks, he’s been mapping out where to fit all 430 performers in the Helena Civic Center. The stage has been enlarged, choirs are positioned onstage and in two end-seating sections to either side of the stage with a clear view of conductor Allan R. Scott.

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“We can fit 430 people in the civic center, no problem,” said Kall, “but we have to do it in an artistic and functional way.”

Because of the limitations of the building’s design, there are three pockets of choirs. “Putting 138 singers on risers is easy,” he added. “The challenge is claiming enough real estate for the orchestra.”

Violinists need room to fully extend their bowing arms. Trombones can’t be knocking musicians in the back of the head. Also, he had to make room for an organ, a piano, two harps and 20 additional orchestra members.

One soprano is located off stage — up in the nosebleed section of the auditorium.

There are also off-stage trumpets and trombones.

This also presents other challenges, making sure that the new choir areas and the soloist are properly lit and set up for sound.

Add to this the logistics for a TV film crew that is creating a documentary of the production for possible broadcast on Montana PBS next year.

There’s also “another layer of fun” — projecting a DVD presentation at the beginning of the concert and then the supertitle English translations of the German and Latin lyrics throughout the concert.

Logistics are “the kind of thing you don’t notice unless there’s a problem,” said Lily.

So if you don’t notice their work Saturday night, that’s the way they like it.

Reporter Marga Lincoln: 447-4083, or on

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