Step into the cool waters of your favorite Montana river or trout stream in a new multi-media music/spoken word creation premiering July 21 at the Myrna Loy Center in Helena. Emmy-nominated composer and pianist Philip Aaberg and actor and former fishing guide Michael “Mokey” McNeill created “The Old Man and The River,” an homage to water “and the radiant Yellowstone cutthroat trout and how they connect us all in magnificent ways,” writes Aaberg in his description of this ambitious and refreshing work.
The performance piece, commissioned by the Myrna Loy Center and the National Endowment for the Arts, makes its world premiere 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 21.
The experience moves you in unexpected ways – even if you’re not a fly-fishing enthusiast.
Some of it is the piano music by Aaberg, who blends original compositions with such well-known works as “Shenandoah,” and a mix of blues, jazz and classical music to evoke visions of Montana’s rivers and sweeping landscapes.
McNeilly also composed an original ballad, “High Diving,” about despair and ultimate hope.
A mix of stunning visuals, compelling video footage, photos and humorous sketches by McNeilly weave together in this performance piece. Scenes of the flowing waters, fish swimming in the stream, and video projections of gorgeous riverscapes are part of the immersive scenic design.
Video segments of interviews with fly-fishing legend Bud Lilly and novelist Peter Bowen and photos by famous Yellowstone photographer Tom Murphy add to the rich aural and visual tapestry.
The vision for this project began in the early 1990s, when Aaberg and McNeilly met on a fly-fishing trip on the Smith River. Their companions were members of a famous New York fly fishing club who were so obsessed with their casting they seemed oblivious to the beauty surrounding them – and the trout who scorned them.
Aaberg and McNeilly, who now both reside in the Helena area, shared their dismay over recent scenes on Montana rivers that made them want to “rock the boat.” Over the years they became concerned that Montana rivers and the state’s amazing trout may be getting loved to death.
Their opportunity to create a multi-media piece came with a grant the Myrna Loy Center snagged from the NEA’s “Imagine Your Parks” program.
“The Myrna Loy wanted to commission a performance piece that celebrates the life and riverscapes of Montana,” said Krys Holmes, Myrna Loy’s director. “Aaberg’s tremendous composing skills, and the fountain of comedic spoken/word that McNeilly is, inspired us to engage the Imagine Your Parks grant program.”
The collaboration blends Aaberg’s music with words, visuals and comedy – McNeilly’s specialty. He is known in Montana and nationally for his mime and comedic talents, having appeared in more than 40 Hollywood stage productions, as well as TV shows and films.
The heart of the show celebrates the late Bud Lilly, famous for not only his fly-fishing shop but also his conservation ethics. It was while Lilly ran a fishing shop in West Yellowstone that he learned from Yellowstone National Park rangers that thousands of trout were being thrown in the park’s trash cans by anglers who didn’t know what to do with the fish after they caught them.
Although catch-and-release was commonly used in the East, it wasn’t in the West, said Aaberg. “He and other influential guides got it going in the West.”
Upon Lilly’s death in January, Gov. Steve Bullock was quoted as saying that Montana “lost a true outdoorsman, a stalwart of conservation and a leading voice in Montana’s fishing community. He was, and will always be remembered as, ‘a trout’s best friend.’”
And just as Lilly helped launch a new ethic decades ago, Aaberg and McNeilly are promoting a Live Wire catch-and-release ethic that allows more trout to swim free after being caught.
Although the ethic of catch-and-release is now well known, many of the fish are being so mistreated in the process that they die. Aaberg and McNeilly want to spread the word that fish need to be in the water when you take that trophy photo shot, not held out at arm’s length like in the fishing magazines. Studies show that 35 to 50 percent of those photographed fish die once released, McNeilly said.
There are a lot of reasons people go fishing, said Aaberg and often it’s not about the fish at all.
“The Old Man and the River” is more about beauty, humor and wonder than preaching, however. Though the pair’s love for rivers runs bone-deep, they can’t refrain from honky-tonk tunes and gut-busting humor for too long.
Aaberg and McNeilly hope their debut performance will lead to performances in the national parks and other venues across the western landscape. Anyone wishing to make a tax-deductible donation to support a larger tour of the performance can send funds to the Myrna Loy Center, earmarked for “The Old Man and the River,” or donate on Aaberg’s website: www.sweetgrassmusic.com.
Tickets to the premiere performance are $30, available at the Myrna Loy Center, 15 N. Ewing, 406-443-0287 or myrnaloycenter.com.