Pianist Eric Houghton Taking on a Once-Dormant ‘Pioneering’ Project

Jul 04, 2018
Courtesy of: Westminster Choir College Eric Houghton

As a concert pianist, Eric Houghton has performed solo and chamber recitals in numerous venues, featuring the works of master composers. He has also composed his own works, incorporating them into his recitals. But the Harvey Cedars native is now in the midst of his most ambitious work, Pioneer Songs, featuring symphonic pieces detailing the first wagon trains to California for orchestra, chorus, soloists and narrator. However, if it were not for a chance encounter with a soprano two years ago, this opus may have remained an unfinished work.

He recalled it was in early 1992 when Robert Marquis, a 47-year-old father of four with a thriving public relations business, walked into Houghton’s piano studio at the Westminster Conservatory of Music in Princeton and began taking lessons. He was eager and excited about starting up lessons again after a 30-year lapse.

“Bob had a bit of talent, and was plodding through some of the easier Chopin and Schumann works, when I suggested he try out a couple new piano pieces I had just composed,” said Houghton, who has taught at the conservatory since graduating magna cum laude in piano performance from Westminster Choir College in 1984. Affiliated with Rider University, the conservatory is a subsidiary of the college.

Houghton said that when Marquis came back the following week, he told him, “These pieces are terrific.”

“To Bob, they had an early-American sound to them,” Houghton recalled. “He said, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to write a show, a show about pioneers. This style seems perfect, doesn’t it? Let’s write a musical about the pioneers! We’ll have four soloists, narrator, and you can play the piano. What do you say?”

Houghton said yes.

“That was the start,” Houghton recalled. “And we got to work. He would give me ideas: for opening piece, with our young travelers gathering together, calling the audience to join them. The next week we had ‘Gathering.’ Bob said  we need a piece listing all the crap they tried to bring with them on the long journey. The song ‘Preparation’ was born, with over 80 items hilariously listed and sung.”

The second half was to be the journey itself.

“After the ‘Prelude to Act 2,’ we created ‘Doin’s of the Day,’ a snapshot of life on the trail, with narration co-mingling with the singers and vamping music,” Houghton said. “Next came the ‘stars’ of the show, and the most troublesome and dangerous for those adventurers, ‘The Prairie,’ ‘The Oxen,’ ‘The Desert’ and ‘The Mountains.’ After they barely made it over the Sierra Nevada mountains, Bob told me, they were just about dead. And so ‘Petition’ is the prayer-like hymn that came next. In it we hear their humble plea to their God to somehow give the strength to keep moving ahead.”

He said “Celebration,” the final number in Pioneer Songs, pulls together thematic material heard earlier, combines motifs, and triumphantly ends the show with the words “New Life!”

Houghton said that by May 1993, the show was finished. Marquis produced an infomercial that was shown all over America in the wee hours, hoping to sell the CD recording he had just funded.

“We weren’t very successful with that, but, undeterred, Bob produced the debut performance in Princeton in August, and began making big plans for future performances and an expansion of the show,” he said.

But that all changed tragically in early January 1994, when Marquis passed away from a massive heart attack.

“Everything stopped,” said Houghton. “Eventually a few more performances were staged, and I hand-wrote an orchestral score the following year, but the end of Bob Marquis, I certainly believed, was the end of Pioneer Songs. For many years it was.”

But in the fall of 2016, he met the original soprano, Joy Bechtler, for coffee to discuss a possible rebirth of the show.

“I decided to go for it. I had the software and some more experience with orchestration to put together a full and expanded score of the work,” said Houghton. “With Bob ‘perched atop my shoulders,’ for six months I worked and created a new and improved Pioneer Songs.”

Indeed, this version has “new life,” with choral backing to eight of the songs, an orchestra featuring all the normal instrumentation, plus guitar and piano, tubular bells and even newly added music.

“It is now primed and ready to return to the stage, as Bob Marquis would have wanted it to be,” said Houghton. “After 25 years, the show has come full circle and is longing to be heard.”

In May, the new Pioneer Songs premiered at the Princeton Meadow Church and Event Center in West Windsor.

“We’re working on some more dates,” said Houghton. “It would have been a shame for all these songs to have gone to waste.”

— Eric Englund


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