A story about a friendship between a mountain and a bird, set to music by an award-winning young composer, is the fitting high-elevation soundtrack to the Missoula Symphony Orchestra’s annual family concert on Saturday.
This year, they’re presenting “The Mountain That Loved A Bird,” a contemporary score from composer Caroline Shaw, based on the popular children’s book by Alice McLerran and illustrated by Eric Carle, of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” fame.
“It’s already a beautiful story, and with the music it really gets deeper,” said Julia Tai, the symphony’s music director.
She’s happy to bring Shaw’s music, which has been rarely if ever performed here, to Missoula audiences. Her work boasts a contemporary flair without coming across as cold, she said, a mood that you’ll hear in this work, written for children.
“You identify with it because it’s from our era, you feel like this is a piece from our time … written by a young composer who really has a distinct voice of her own,” she said.
The concert will also feature Benjamin Britten’s “Simple Symphony,” along with other pieces that spotlight different sections of the orchestra, like the brass and the woodwinds. Tai hopes it’s “like a bird flying through nature, seeing all this beautiful scenery while hearing music and meeting the instruments.”
In 2013, Shaw won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for Partita for Eight Voices. At age 30, she was the youngest composer to ever win the award. In the decade since, she’s written and performed in a wide range of contexts, from chamber music for strings to vocal work and percussion, collecting three Grammy Awards along the way.
She’s composed scores for film and television, such as “Fleishman is in Trouble,” lent vocals to pop star Rosalia, and collaborated with Beyonce on “Homecoming.”
While Shaw wrote this piece for a family concert in 2017 at Carnegie Hall, it hasn’t been properly recorded. Tai discovered it through a YouTube video of a performance at a summer festival with the deep voice of Bruce Campbell of the “Evil Dead” trilogy on narration.
In McLerran’s story, the barren geologic protagonist’s solitude is interrupted by the arrival of a small bird. While they enjoy each other’s company, there’s a hitch. The terrain, devoid of water and food, is too inhospitable for the bird to stay long before migrating.
Tai said the music hews closely to the plot and characters: A lonely, repeated glockenspiel ding signals the emptiness of the mountain’s state. A flute enters to signal the arrival of a bird, imitating a “very active and typical chirp.”
“She also has a way of writing a beautiful harmonic progression that really warms your heart,” Tai said. She cited the interesting rhythmic ideas that build, and a swelling rise in drama that mirrors a key point in the story. (No spoilers.)
To bring the story to life, the symphony is working again with theater director/actress Rosie Seitz Ayers to add a performance element. She’ll narrate, while the story will play out courtesy of Ryan Eggensperger, a performer/educator from Helena, as the mountain; and Heather Adams, a dancer/choreographer/director and the head of Arts Missoula, as the bird. Ayers worked with MCT Inc. on costumes. There will be other visual elements like projections, including drawings from the kids’ art contest.
They’ve created a trail map with Five Valleys Land Trust, this year’s nonprofit partner. They picked a musical selection to go with various public lands the trust has secured. For instance, Mount Sentinel is paired with “In the Capital in Kyiv,” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Flint Creek Valley grasslands are paired with Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony No. 6.
The map will have QR codes that link to snippets of the music and learn about the connections composers make between nature and their work.
Afternoon library event
From 10 a.m.-noon, there’s a free “Musical Quest” at the Missoula Public Library, in which kids can check out the parts of the building while learning about musical instruments firsthand.
“We came up with the concept of a treasure hunt in the library, because it’s such a gorgeous building,” she said.
Kids can get a stamp at each station and get a free cocoa. Performers from the symphony will be set up at different stations. For instance, the harpist will demonstrate their instrument and plucking techniques; an oboist will show not only how the oboe is played, but how its reeds are assembled. It will culminate on the top floor with a view of the mountains.
“Families can make a day out of it. You go to the library in the morning for an hour, and then you go home and get lunch and then you come back to the concert,” she said.