Once they left, they were really gone for good. There were no smartphones. No Starbucks. No 7-Elevens. Unknown perils, punishing weather, and sudden illness were facts of daily life. Provisions may have run short, but through determination, grit, and the efforts of a tight-knit community, they were able to get by.
Their story is told in “Pioneer Songs,” Eric Houghton’s epic meditation on the courage and resilience of those Americans who blazed the western frontier. The historical oratorio will be presented at Patriots Theater at the Trenton War Memorial on Saturday, November 10, at 7:30 p.m. Houghton’s cycle of 15 symphonic songs for vocal soloists, choir, and narrator, celebrates the first successful passage of wagon trains to California in the 1840s.
The genesis of the piece grew out of an extraordinary teacher-student relationship between Houghton and Robert Marquis, who had just begun to take piano lessons at Westminster Conservatory. “He had just bought a nine-foot grand piano, so he was very excited about taking lessons,” Houghton recalls.
“I had written a couple of short piano pieces. One I just called ‘Folk Song’ and another was called ‘Cradle Song.’ My wife and I had just had our first baby. These two I’d given to him to take home to play, and he came back after a week or two and said, ‘Eric, these pieces are terrific. They have this early American kind of folk sound to them. I’ve always wanted to write a show about the West, maybe pioneers. What do you think?’ I said sure! So we started exchanging ideas. It was just one thing after another, and within six months, we had 15 songs, the entire show, written.”
Marquis produced the show and delivered the narration himself. He also paid for a recording that they peddled on a television “infomercial” that would air in the early morning hours. Sadly, six months later, Marquis died of a heart attack at the age of 48.
The original version of “Pioneer Songs” earned Houghton a 1993 ASCAP “Meet the Composer Award.” While he had had it in the back of his mind that he might want to do something more with the piece, it would be more than two decades before he would embark on an ambitious revision.
“It just kind of sat until about two-and-a-half years ago, when I met with the original soprano, Joy Bechtler,” he says. “We had coffee, and she was discussing a possible performance. I had handwritten some orchestration years ago, but nothing had really been done with it. Something about the meeting with Joy just spurred my interest, and I said, ‘I’ve just got to spend the time and do it.’ So that’s what I did that whole winter of 2016. I added a chorus to eight of the movements and expanded the orchestration. Not that I expanded the songs so much, per se, but just the whole orchestration and chorus made it a whole different animal, really.”
The revised version was given its world premiere at the Princeton Meadow Road Arts and Events Center in May. A Houghton colleague at Westminster, Dr. Ruth Ochs, conducted the Westminster Community Orchestra, Westminster Community Chorus, and Pennsbury Chamber Choir.
“The orchestra was very enthusiastic about the piece,” Ochs notes. “We all found ourselves after the May concert humming the melodies for days. The musical idiom is very accessible. People were asking us if it had ever been recorded.”
In the audience happened to be James Bushong. “He’s the director of the Patriots Arts Coalition,” Ochs says, “which is a committee that brings performances to the Trenton War Memorial and the Patriots Theater. He thought that this might be a very appropriate work for that space. Because of his efforts and inspiration, we decided that we would perform it again, so soon in fact, at the War Memorial.”
Ochs is in her 13th year as conductor of the Westminster Community Orchestra. Houghton has been at Westminster Conservatory for 34 years. His duties include “teaching piano, mostly, and some composition, and doing a lot of arranging.”
The singers of the “Pioneer Songs” will include soprano Kathee Zenn and mezzo-soprano Miranda Landers-Smith, both graduates of Westminster Choir College, lyric tenor Jeremy Blossey, and bass-baritone Martin Hargrove. Nancy Froysland-Hoerl will narrate the perils and triumphs of the 1840s pioneers.
The Westminster Community Orchestra will be joined by a hundred voice choir, made up of the Westminster Community Chorus, prepared by Sinhaeng Lee, and the Ewing-based Glassbrook Vocal Ensemble, which is directed by Chaequan Anderson.
“They’re a professional ensemble, a 30-voice choir that’s absolutely stunning,” Ochs says of Glassbrook. “We also have members of the community who are not in the Community Chorus who will be joining us just for this project. Eric’s wife is a church choir director. Members of her choir will join forces with other alumnae from Westminster.”
Ochs adds that “Pioneer Songs” was the largest premiere she has ever conducted, in terms of both the forces involved and the length of the piece. It will also be her first time conducting at the Trenton War Memorial.
The Trenton and Mercer County War Memorial — Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Building (Trenton War Memorial, for short) was designed by Philadelphia-born architect Louis S. Kaplan (1896-1964). Kaplan, at the time a young man, won a competition to design the building, which was constructed in 1930. Dedicated “to the Soldiers and Sailors and Other Patriotic Citizens of Trenton and Mercer County as a Memorial of Their Faithful Services in Time of National Need” (i.e. World War I), the venue opened in 1932, and Kaplan went on to become Trenton’s leading architect.
Trenton’s memorial to its fallen was not a statue or a monument, but a functional concert hall, at one time attracting performers like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, and Sarah Vaughan. Ignacy Paderewski played there in 1933; Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1940. Eleanor Steber recorded Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1916” at the War Memorial in 1962.
The ornate hall, in an Italian Renaissance style, holds more than 1,800 seats. After a good 30-year run, however, it began to show signs of wear and tear and crowds began to dwindle. The building was added to the National Historic Register of Historic Places in 1986. It was restored in the 1990s and rededicated in 1999. The main auditorium was renamed the Patriots Theater in 2001. With convenient parking located directly across the street, the venue is easily accessible from I-95 and I-295.
Everyone involved hopes the public will take advantage of this special evening. “Community is so important,” Houghton says, “the whole idea of doing something together. Only 20 families, doing what they did, and they all made it, on this initial journey to California. We have a new mayor in Trenton, we have a new governor. We are trying to get some revitalization for Trenton. It can help if we start utilizing that theater, which is just an amazing space. I know James [Bushong] is trying to get more things coming into the War Memorial like there used to be. This is a piece that can reach a wider audience. People just love it.”
In addition to her duties with the Westminster Community Orchestra, Ochs conducts the Princeton University Sinfonia. She is associate conductor of the Princeton University Orchestra and director of small ensembles at Princeton. She makes her home in Lawrence Township with her husband, cellist Tomasz Rzeczycki, and their two sons.
Houghton has lived in Ewing with his family for almost 30 years. He and his youngest daughter are involved in Meals on Wheels in Trenton. He enjoys sports, but says music consumes most of his time. His wife, Carol, is music director at Ewing Presbyterian Church, for which he writes anthems. For the past three decades, Houghton has also been director of music at Saint Adalbert and Saints Peter and Paul, a combined Catholic church, in Elizabeth.
His historical oratorio about the triumph of the American spirit will be enhanced by projected images. Ochs finds added resonance in the fact that the work will be performed on November 10.
“It happens to be the eve of the Armistice,” she says, referring to the end of World War I, on November 11, 100 years ago. “The concert is being presented at the Trenton War Memorial, built in honor of those who served in World War I. It will be a great coming together of musicians from our community in a piece that was locally nurtured by Eric and Bob Marquis. It’s just a wonderful occasion of musical elements from Mercer County coming together in probably one of the premier concert halls in the area.
“The topic may be 19th century, the 1840s, about perseverance and what everybody overcame going out west, but it’s a message that speaks today in new contexts that we’re confronting all the time.”
Pioneer Songs, Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, 1 Memorial Drive, Trenton. Saturday, November 10, 7:30 p.m. $25 to $75. www.communitymusical.com.
Pioneer Songs Preview, Hopewell Library, 245 Pennington-Titusville Road, Pennington. Presented by Eric Houghton. Friday, November 9. 3:30 p.m. 609-737-7419 or www.mcl.org.