Rick Worrall was a young boy the first time he saw American singer-songwriter John Denver performing at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto in 1975. Denver was joined by a symphony led by his conductor and arranger, Lee Holdridge.
“Hearing these songs with full symphony, it just stuck in my head,” Worrall said.
More than 40 years later, Worrall, now a Kelowna-based musician, reached out to Holdridge to help revive the experience he felt that summer in Toronto. Last March the duo premiered Rocky Mountain High: An Evening of John Denver in Kelowna and on May 17 the show makes its Nanaimo debut at the Port Theatre.
“At first I was worried about this. I said, ‘Wow, I don’t know how this will go,’” Holdridge said. “But then when I discovered the [audience] reaction … we got more than we bargained for. So it’s kind of a pleasant surprise to discover that they really enjoy it.”
The program includes Denver’s traditional folk songs, as well as his foray into symphonic and operatic music. The show makes use of the original scores Holdridge wrote for Denver. Holdridge was insistent that the musicians get every detail right, including learning the original guitar parts.
“I’ve been to concerts where people are doing John Denver tributes and they’re playing the wrong chords and the wrong changes and it just doesn’t sound right. You sit there and say, ‘What? That’s not the way that song goes,’” he said. “So I insisted on that and Rick and his [band] were amazing in recreating those things and being absolutely fanatical about it.”
When the production tours, Worrall seeks out local performers to join the ensemble. When the show comes to the Island it will feature the Victoria Symphony and taking on operatic duties will be University of Victoria tenor Nolan Kehler and Nanaimo soprano Nadya Blanchette.
Worrall said “engaging the local communities” was an important part of the plan from the beginning and Rocky Mountain High does that by not only featuring local artists, but by contributing to local charities. At the Nanaimo show, money will be raised for the Loaves and Fishes Community Food Bank and non-perishable food donations will be welcome in the Port Theatre lobby.
“Bottom line is John was an incredible philanthropist and he really got behind a lot of wonderful organizations and it was part of my vision … to keep that going,” Worrall said. “I think it’s really important that we include organizations that can use the support, that need the support, so it’s part of our mantra that everywhere we go we team up with a local charity.”
Holdridge said he used to tell Denver that many of his songs would soon become timeless folk classics. It was an apt prediction, as over the years he’s heard Denver’s music played around the world. As someone who knew and worked with Denver, Holdridge said it means a lot to be involved with Rocky Mountain High.
“I’m very thrilled to be a part of that and I think it’s a wonderful thing to be able to do this, keeping certain classic songs alive,” he said. “People seem to be really enjoying it and I think there are some new generations coming along that are discovering it. There are a lot of young people at the concerts, which I’m delighted about.”
WHAT’S ON … Rocky Mountain High: An Evening of John Denver at the Port Theatre on Friday, May 17 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $54 to $74.