Utah Symphony and Opera Celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad with Newly Commissioned Work

The Utah Symphony with Musical Director/Conductor Thierry Fischer

The Utah Symphony with Musical Director/Conductor Thierry Fischer

The Utah Symphony and Utah Opera join to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad’s “Golden Spike” this May by presenting newly commissioned orchestral work and a variety of 10-minute operas on the theme of the railroad. The Golden Spike was the ceremonial final spike that joined the rails of America’s First Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869.

Exactly 150 years since the railroad’s completion, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs on Friday, May 10, at 8pm, with the Utah Symphony Orchestra presenting performances of newly composed works to mark this significant anniversary. These events are included as part of Spike 150, a statewide effort to celebrate the Golden Spike.

On May 17 and 18, Music Director Thierry Fischer will conduct Chinese-born composer Zhou Tian’s Transcend, a three-movement work, Utah Symphony co-commission that pays tribute to the many immigrant workers who built the Transcontinental Railroad. The new work was commissioned with 14 orchestras along the path of the Transcontinental Railroad and was organized by the Reno Philharmonic, which will give the world premiere. The program will also include Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Suite from Billy the Kid. These concerts take place on Friday, May 17, at 7:30pm and Saturday, May 18, at 5:30pm at Abravenel Hall.

Zhou Tian, describing the inspiration for Transcend:

“[The Transcontinental Railroad’s] cultural heritage includes the contribution of a thousands-strong Chinese and Irish workforce who toiled in severe weather and cruel working conditions. … As a Chinese-born composer who immigrated to this country … I was moved to create this new work to tell a musical story, to convey a sense of spiritual perseverance, and to pay tribute to my own cultural heritage.”

The co-commissioning of this work reflects Mr. Fischer’s commitment to new music for orchestra, in addition to the orchestra’s commissioning and premiered works from Simon Holt, Michael Jarrell, Augusta Read and others.

For more information, visit The Utah Symphony website.

Utah Opera new commissions

The Utah Opera has also commissioned new music this spring. They will present four ten-minute Transcontinental Railroad-themed operas in Brigham City (May 20), Ogden (May 21), and Salt Lake City (May 22), which will then be performed in community concerts and the company’s Random Acts of Opera over the next coming seasons.

Artistic Director Christopher McBeth described the importance of showcasing local talent for these performances:

“Utah Opera is pleased to support this historic event by creating opportunities for Utah artists to collaborate in the creation of new operatic works. These ten-minute operas showcase the convergence of local creatives who make contemporary opera relevant in telling very human stories that have shaped the fabric of our state and country. It is a powerful example of the storytelling, music, and art that constitute opera, and we are so happy to support its creation.”

The four operas commissioned are:

  • Completing the Picture, by composer Michael Ching and librettist / researcher / choreographer Victoria Panella Bourns. This opera fills in the larger picture of human involvement on the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Many men posed in the historic photograph above, but no Chinese are pictured. The opera will include depictions of the “Strange Parade” Westerners reported when the Chinese arrived, as well as the difficulty of their labor on the railroad.

  • The Stone, the Tree and the Bird, by composer Jacob Lee and librettist Christine McDonough. The work depicts a campfire conversation between three railworkers the night before the 1869 ceremony in Promontory, Utah. They dream and plan what they will do now that the historic job is done.

  • Burial by composer Tony Solitro and librettist Paisley Rekdal. The work centers on a confrontation between a town mayor and a café owner about how to appropriately bury and honor Chinese men who helped build the railroad. The opera explores themes of belonging and identity: Are the dead Chinese to be treated as Asian aliens or American workers?

  • No Ladies in the Lady’s Book by composer Lisa Despain and librettist Rachel Peters. This comic opera explores the often-overlooked contributions of women to the success of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Performances of all four operas take place on Monday, May 20, at 7:30 p.m. at the Brigham City Fine Arts Center (Brigham City, UT), Tuesday, May 21, at 7:30 p.m. at the Ogden Union Station (Ogden, UT), and Wednesday, May 22, at 7:30 p.m. at the Gallivan Center (Salt Lake City, UT).

For more information, visit The Utah Opera website.

— Darby Swab