Prairie Spirit : Choral Mass Celebrates Heritage of the Great Plains

Times Staff Writer

Melanie McCoy's love for the Great Plains began at the age of 4 when she would sneak out to her family's cow pasture each evening as the sun began to set and "introduce myself to God."

"I would dance around on the hillside, singing songs to the cattle, the horses, the buffalo and the Indians," remembered McCoy, a 10-year resident of Simi Valley whose devotion to the Great Plains and its people is celebrated in her orchestral and chorale work, "The Heritage Mass, Prayer for the Children of the Prairies." The Mass will be performed by the Moorpark Masterworks Chorale at 8 p.m. Saturday at St. John Baptist de la Salle Church in Granada Hills.

The work also will be featured at the International Church Music Festival in Kristiansand, Norway, in May, 1990, and musicians in New York and Australia have expressed interest in staging it too, McCoy said. The Masterworks Chorale performed a portion of the Mass while on a 1987 European tour, and the entire chorale and orchestral Mass premiered last year in Thousand Oaks.

Inspirational Memory

McCoy's memory of dancing before God, celebrating all that was life just as the Plains Indians did in their ceremonial dances, prompted the composition.

"With Native Americans, there is never a feeling of separation from the Great Spirit," said McCoy, who is one-eighth Cherokee. "That's what the Mass is about, a tribute not only to my Indian ancestors but to my non-Indian ancestors who came to Kansas by way of covered wagon. It is a tribute to anyone who grew up out on the Great Plains.

"It's a harsh environment for everyone, from Indians who were moved to it or from it, to the farmers and ranchers. It is not an easy country. It took very special people to stick it out."

That pioneer spirit of sticking it out applies to McCoy, who worked for more than three years on the 45-minute piece. It contains harmonies, rhythms and prayers from American Indian cultures and is accented with the tom-tom, the turkey-bone whistle and ceremonial ankle bells.

Heart of the Plains

McCoy, 42, grew up in Coldwater, Kan., in the heart of the Great Plains, near the Oklahoma border.

"Our Indian heritage was always quite important to my family," she said, "and it was something I learned from both my grandmothers and my mother. Tidbits of information would float down to me, and I remember being told, 'If you're Indian, you don't behave in that manner.' "

The daughter of a surgeon and an English teacher, McCoy began piano lessons at age 7, clarinet lessons at 9 and voice lessons at 11. She continued to pursue all of that at the University of Kansas. Much of her inspiration came from her piano and voice teacher, Leda King, a former mezzo-soprano soloist with the San Francisco Opera who settled "by the grace of God" in Coldwater, a prairie town of 1000 people, McCoy said.

Several years ago, after hearing a concert by the Masterworks Chorale, McCoy approached director James Stemen about her Mass. His encouragement led to her reorchestration of the piece, to lighten it so the chorale singers could be heard over the orchestra.

Television Work

McCoy has written other works, including a musical score for a cable television movie for which she was awarded the Bronze Halo by the Southern California Motion Picture Council, and a children's musical for public television.

But the Heritage Mass has consumed her, entailing extensive research into Indian music.

"I began writing the music and then I thought that I had better make sure I was doing it right. I found out I was doing it right, doing it automatically, probably from all those Indian chants I had heard while I was growing up. . . . There was this music in me and I had to write it down. Maybe somewhere in all of this, I'll get paid for what I do."

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