Features

The Music of Crawford Gates

Carma Wadley

Deseret News | Sunday, October 22, 2006

Gates took the work to the hundred-piece San Jose orchestra, and the director invited him to conduct it at an immediate practice session. That started off as a very bad experience, he says. Orchestra members were not particularly enthralled with the idea; he'd left all the sharps off the French horn parts he'd copied; and he'd never conducted an orchestra before. "If it had stayed like that, I probably would have gone into physics."
But the end of his piece had a "beautiful melody, with rich harmony, a very romantic quality. The whole thing changed in those last four minutes. By the end, the orchestra members were spontaneously applauding and whistling. That made me want to write for orchestras all my life."

First, however, an LDS mission, and then World War II, interrupted his studies. After the war, he thought he would go back East to study, when another bit of chance changed his direction. "I got a car, and two days later I was in an automobile accident. While I was waiting to get the car fixed so I could leave, the phone rang."

One of his former mission companions was working at KSL radio in Salt Lake City. The station had just fired its music director. Gates went to Salt Lake City, and "just as I was going into the interview, out walked Lowell Durham. I knew I didn't have a chance."

Durham got the job, but he hired Gates to do arrangements for the orchestra — in those days a live orchestra played every Friday night. "He also encouraged me to go to Brigham Young University and study with LeRoy Robertson. So interesting things grew out of that."

Another one was right around the corner. The centennial of the arrival of the pioneers was looming, and the LDS Church wanted a Broadway-type show to be part of the festivities. "They wanted something like 'Oklahoma,' but they couldn't get Rodgers and Hammerstein. They did get Arnold Sungaard to write the book and lyrics and offered a contract to Kurt Weill, but he had other commitments, so he couldn't accept it."

But the idea of hiring outsiders was creating controversy in Salt Lake City. "People wondered why in 100 years we hadn't produced anyone who could tell our own story. Everyone was talking about it. There were letters to the editor."

Durham, who was then also music critic of the Salt Lake Tribune, wrote a column saying there were plenty of LDS composers who could do the job. He listed eight, among them Lee Harline, who was working in Hollywood, and classical composers Arthur Shepherd and LeRoy Robertson. "No. 8 on the list was Crawford Gates. I can't tell you how I rose from being No. 8 to being No. 1, but by December I got the contract."

"Promised Valley" became an overwhelming success. "I think it's safe to say it was the biggest artistic endeavor generated in Utah. It went on to 2,700 performances on five continents in six languages. It played in downtown Salt Lake for 19 summers at the Temple View Theater, and then at Promised Valley Playhouse for another 14 years."

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