A Dispatch from Fishtail, Montana
Downbeat was in less than 24 hours for the inaugural concert on the ranch. A herd of trucks and tractors still rumbled through, as hundreds of construction workers added finishing touches to buildings, and cleared roads to the eight sculpture sites placed among the dips and rises of the 11,500 acres of this working cattle and sheep ranch.
Friends since they were 16, and married 36 years, Peter and Cathy Halstead are the wizards behind the Tippet Rise Art Center. Thinking about their grandchildren— and all of our grandchildren—they imagined a sanctuary for art and music where their values can flourish in “incredible solitude.” Cathy remembers, “In college, when other people had ideas about what could change the world—politics, economics...—we said, ‘No, art changes the world.’ ”
On site for the first time, Peter recalls, “It felt to us like the fields from Nantucket. It felt like the fields of Ireland which are my ancestral fields. It felt like the moors of Scotland. And it also was close to the Beartooth Mountains which are really the Switzerland of America. And they’re the least known, least visited of any of the American wilderness areas. One million acres of the most gorgeous lakes and tundra and mountains, Gothic mountains.”
Where once buffalo roamed, now had risen the Olivier Barn, a wood-wrapped concert hall of intimate proportions inspired by Haydn’s Music Room at Esterhazy Palace in Austria. To design the acoustics of the hall, they hired the renowned engineering firm Arup, whose project manager, Alban Bassuet, eventually became Tippet’s first Director. “[The Olivier Barn] is just a beautiful barn. And it also has very special materials inside to make the sound so gorgeous,” Cathy says. The couple jokingly calls it “Carnegie Barn”—an environment that feels comfortable to their audience, but that sounds as good as a world-class concert hall.
Over a two week residency, I have played Franz Schubert’s glorious String Quintet there, with the exceptional young Dover Quartet, and Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” I have turned pages for Scriabin’s “Poéme de L’Extase” and “Prometheus” arranged for two pianos. I have traversed landmark Russian Sonatas by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff with Tippet Rise Music Director and my long-time friend and musical complement, Christopher O’Riley. I surveyed all six Cello Suites of J.S. Bach along with my newly commissioned “Overtures to Bach” by six living composers.
Before all of that, there was a musical celebration for all involved in the Center, neighbors, construction workers, and staff. Throughout the day, we journeyed through the six Bach Brandenburg Concerti. When we finally arrived to the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, I was struck by how Bach’s musical vision is realized through three sets of couples: two solo violas, two viola da gambas, a cello and continuo. There is a strength in pairs. I see these bonds everywhere here in Montana. Thomas Jefferson even had the foresight to send a pair of explorers to lead his expedition out west, Captain Meriwether Lewis and his Second Lieutenant William Clark, to take stock of his newly acquired land from the Louisiana Purchase.
Lindsey and Pete Hinmon are the Director of Outreach and Logistics and Director of Operations at Tippet Rise, respectively. They were living on the East Coast when Peter and Cathy asked if they might consider joining the team. “The Halsteads said, ‘Have you thought about Montana?’ Well, yes we have. They had followed our career paths over the last 10 years and it really lined up. So we came and visited a couple of times and we were sold,” Lindsey tells me. Pete adds, “It’s really nice to be back in the mountains, in that kind of community and culture.” Both wear a lot of hats to keep the Center running with a small team, and always with a smile.
One afternoon, I sat with my own better half, composer Luna Pearl Woolf, on the Olivier veranda, eating a picnic lunch prepared by a third wife-and-husband team who make the place tick: the chefs Wendi Reed and Nick Goldman of Wildflower Kitchen. “My grandfather was a Montana man and he lived in Billings and he’d come up on Sunday drives, and he found our cabin that we now live in, about 20 years ago,” Nick tells me in his thick London accent.
Since coming to Fishtail, Wendi says, “We use a lot more wild game, I would say, you know we’re really getting back to the basics of food. When we first moved out here we were trying to push the envelope doing multi-course tasting menus, doing things that were a little bit more fine dining. And what this place has done is humbled our food and brought us back to simple ingredients, just finding that a quality ingredient can have as much flavor as something from the other side of the spectrum. So I would say we feel more connected to the land here than I ever had.”
When I asked them for their Buffalo Chili recipe from the last BBQ, the couple took turns describing their recipe, finishing each other’s sentences with ingredients and methodology. I was not prepared for the inspiration behind their life-changing dish. Turns out they had to feed twice the expected number of guests which led to an improvisational cadenza. Nick was unfazed by the drama. “Everything I make is freehand, every single thing. It’s different from day to day. We had two hours to make 200 portions of chili so ‘GO.’ And you use your instinct to go, What kind of flavor profile, what kind of spices do I need to make this work.” Wendi added, if you’re feeling spicy that day, you put a little extra heat, if you’re feeling sour…” Sounds like my recipe for the music of Franz Schubert.
It had already been a long day after final rehearsals for the first four Brandenburg Concerti. It was time to rehearse the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6. For the Concerto I would tackle the first of two solo viola parts, playing—at pitch—on my newly re-envisioned five-string cello piccolo. As a standard (if ¾-size) cello, this Leipzig-area, Bach-era instrument had been my partner in crime for debuts with the Israel and New York Philharmonics, at Carnegie Hall, and many others when I was 10 to 15 years old. Now, after decades in the corner and a two-month surgical transition, its new identity as a five-string cello piccolo was to be revealed at Tippet Rise.
I opened the case, only to find the ox-gut E-string swirled savagely around the cello body, ravaged in two. My heart sank as I wondered how the several players joining us from the Billings Symphony would respond to such a delay: I had foolishly left my extra strings at the remote guest house, 30 minutes away, by mostly dirt roads. Ever the gentleman, Chris O’Riley graciously changed the order of the rehearsal and an hour later I returned to restring the cello piccolo, with some knot-tying help from the effervescent violinist Susanna Gilmore. My colleagues and I began to fly through the cascading opening sequences of Bach.
It took some time for the gut string to stretch into pitch. Leading the rehearsal, playing the new instrument, constantly making adjustments for the sinking pitch of the raw gut, reading the viola clef... all of it took a toll on my psyche. Rehearsal done, we prepared to caravan over to the Grizzly Bar in Roscoe, Montana, for some well-earned steaks.
The first sign of trouble was the delicate crackling sound of tires against the gravel drive as I stood between my rented Bronco and the still yet-to-be-inaugurated concert hall. Stepping out of the way, I was still only vaguely conscious when the open front door of the truck started nudging me down the hill’s slope. I put my hands on the frame and pushed as I walked backwards, in a terribly misjudged attempt to stop the two-ton vehicle. Of course, momentum was in control and now I was running down the hill backwards, towards a pristine white tent and on toward gleaming-new wood clapboards. My mind reeled: if this monstrous thing is going to bring down the Olivier Concert Barn, then I’m going down with it. At the point where my footing would have failed me in the back-rushing speed, I finally woke up to the fact that there was only one way to avert this impending disaster. Mustering an agility that I may never again achieve, I jumped through the open cockpit door and scrambled for the brake pedal with both feet. As the truck skidded to a stop I grabbed the gear shift and slammed the lever from neutral to park. Maybe this is what a cowboy feels like having wrestled a steer into submission, but even a steer wrestler has a hazer for a partner in the rodeo arena.
Two weeks later, back at Tippet Rise and safely ensconced on the deck of our hilltop ranch house, I look out at a vast spread of undulating ranchland, framed by the towering Rockies. Any second the Beartooth Mountains will start to breathe, rise, and stretch into the sky. Yet, if it were not for those sleeping mountains, the all-embracing sky, and the sweet song of the Western Meadowlark, what lies before me could certainly be a landscape painting of Isabelle Johnson. Just beyond the window, two rabbits are teasing each other, one jumping in and out of a flower pot, the other running circles around a planting. Sauntering into the scene, a pair of deer step regally in perfect canon. As Peter and Cathy say, “Suddenly it’s this adventure and you’ve gone into Narnia, through the wardrobe and into another world. You’re Alice in Wonderland. You’ve gone down the rabbit hole into a really special world.” ¶