Nearly every Monday night, from August through May, a second-floor classroom at Sierra College morphs into a makeshift concert hall as members of the Truckee Tahoe Community Chorus come together in song. They come from near and far – from Truckee and Donner Summit, Kings Beach and Reno. They’re educators, contractors, medical professionals. It’s a place where skiers and snowboarders lay their boards down to congregate amicably, and both socialists and Trump voters join in harmony — literally.
The 50-or-so-member group collectively stands at the direction of conductor Susan Horst. “Back straight! Scapulas together!” she calls out, the room suddenly humming with energy as she brings them through a warm-up of lively Es and Os, accompanied by Sandie Davis on the piano. The buoyant Horst is bright and sunny as she enthusiastically guides their voices with a series of hand motions.
The chorus will step back in time May 4 and 5 during the Truckee Historical Revue at the Community Arts Center. The brainchild of late chorus founder Chris Nelson, the performance shows the Truckee we know and love was built upon dreams.
Formed in 2002, the chorus was helmed by Chris until his passing in 2012. Following his death, Chris’ family “gave us the seed money” to start making their loved one’s dream a reality, said Horst. But the money sat in the choral coffers, until along came local composers Richard Blair and Dr. David Wendell Nelson (who is not related to Chris Nelson).
“A few members of TTCC saw Richard Blair perform,” said chorus president Patricia Gegenheimer. “His folk style of story singing inspired us to meet with him and discuss how we could develop his music into a show about the history of Truckee. He was more than generous and happy to let us use his music in the score.”
Blair wrote three songs for the show. David Wendell Nelson arranged those for orchestra and chorus and composed the rest of music, aside from a Mozart piece, and wrote the narration.
“The greatest difficulty I faced concerning this project was the overwhelming number of historical landmarks and events in Truckee’s history,” said Nelson. “Reducing that history to a series of less than 15 events was problematic, to say the least. Part of the selection process was not only historical importance but what portion of that history could we cover. Certainly, all of it couldn’t be covered in 90 minutes. So, I decided to focus on about 1840 to 1960, starting with the Washoe Native Americans and finishing with the Squaw Valley Olympics.”
After about 800 hours of researching, writing, and composing over a 10-month stretch, the final product was ready to be shared with the members, who began rehearsing in January.
“The music needed to reflect the time period as well, so the musical style ranges from early 19th century, folk music, dance music, opera, drinking songs, barbershop, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll,” Nelson noted. “The music was entirely lyric-driven since these songs had to convey a story. The revue starts in a rather dark tone with the problems concerning the Washoe, Chinese, and Irish, culminating with a more upbeat style and occasional touches of humor.”
Following a pre-show performance of classic Americana folk tunes by the Truckee Tahoe Youth Chorus, guests will embark on a musical time-travel journey spanning over decades, while TTCC’s own Mark Twain — chorus member and Incline Village resident McAvoy Layne — narrates the performance from his wicker chair while historical photos scroll in a video presentation.
“Our local historical society has been very helpful with checking our revue for historical accuracy,” said Nelson. “I am delighted to say we have also worked with the Washoe Tribe Cultural Commission and the Chinese American Museum of Northern California for accuracy in what we are presenting.”
The chorus will team up with performers from around the region, including barbershop quartet OK Chorale, the Diablo Valley College Philharmonic Orchestra, native Washoe singer Stephanie Mushrush, two Chinese baritones, dancers from InnerRhythms, and specialty musicians. All will be decked-out in period attire to bring to life Truckee’s colorful and, at times, checkered past.
Much like the events they describe, the tunes themselves have highs and lows. Some are dynamic and powerful, while others are mellow and melodious. At rehearsal, Horst calls the singers to attention and vibrant voices fill the room. “You want a new life, pack up and follow me. I’m headed West to a new reality,” they sing out, belting with fervor the lyrics to the show’s opener, “Truckee, Here We Come.” A spirited tribute to Squaw Valley USA founder Alex Cushing’s dream of bringing the 1960 Olympics to the burgeoning ski resort, closing number “Squaw” is similarly bold and energetic, as is “Donner,” a tune paying homage to the ill-fated Donner Party.
Horst cues a change of pace, leading the group into “The Duel.”
“All of a sudden you turn from a country chorus to a very sophisticated choir,” she tells her vocalists, with a single voice quipping, “When does that happen, Susan?,” which fills the room with laughter.
The toe-tapping tune tells the story of the infamous gunfight between Jacob Teeter and James Reed at the Capital Saloon, located in downtown Truckee. The building remains — as does a bullet hole in the wall — in what is now the clothing store Dressed. The two believed there was “no room for two kinds of law in this town.” While Teeter was sheriff, Reed served occasionally as deputy, but was known to be affiliated with a group of vigilantes who engaged in running “undesirables” out of town. The two became competitive, with their rivalry culminating at the saloon. As the song says, “Reed walked in and there was trouble real soon.”
With the revue’s premiere a bit over a month away from the night’s rehearsal, the pressure is on to hit every note just right. Jokes and laughter among the group flow like the Truckee River, a comfortable camaraderie palpable in the room. If the singers are feeling the squeeze, it doesn’t show through in their voices.
After wrapping “The Duel,” they segue into “Range of Light.” With a hymn-like sound, this soothing song has peaks and valleys like the mountains of which the words speak. “Alpenglow and winter white crown every peak, in the range of light.” High sopranos are met with voices smooth in contrast. “Mountains call, and I must go. Cathedrals of stone, fire, ice, and snow. In the fading light, shadows bring the starlit night.” The lyrics paint a landscape in the mind’s eye.
“Set yourself up for success,” shouts Horst. “Breathe in the shape of the vowel! ‘NA-ture’s peace, and sunshine flows through.’ You can never be distracted in choir! Not for one instant!”
Later, they transition “back to the grandeur,” as Horst says, with the foot-stomping anthem “Iceman Blues.” The song laments the back-breaking work of the ice industry, which went from flourishing to withering with the onset of refrigeration. “Can’t feel my feet, it’s so damn cold … I can’t get warm to save my soul. Ice work ain’t easy. Ice work ain’t easy.”
While the folks of yesteryear followed their dreams of heading west, the revue that shares their plight is just as much the stuff that dreams are made of — Chris Nelson’s dream. And, according to Gegenheimer, “The talent, effort, and end product would have made Chris enormously proud.”
Truckee Historical Revue
Dates: May 4 at 7 p.m. and May 5 at 2 p.m.
Location: Truckee Community Arts Center; 10046 Church St., Truckee
Tickets: Preferred seats (all ages)/$40
General Admission adults/$30
Children 18 and under/$10
More info: Seating is limited. Purchase tickets at truckeechorus.org