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The Texas Lyceum

Texas values: Buffalo Altar: A Texas Symphony celebrates the Lone Star spirit — where oil & water mix

Joel Luks, “Buffalo Altar” at Perini Ranch supporting the Buffalo Gap, TX Historic Village, Todd Frazier
October 2011 performance of Buffalo Altar at Perini Ranch supporting the Buffalo Gap, Texas, Historic Village with Marc Sanders, piano, from left; Barry Corbin, narrator; Todd Frazier, composer; and Stephen Harrigan, librettist Courtesy Photo
Palo Duro Canyon, pavilion
Palo Duro Canyon State Park's newest pavilion, just 100-miles shy from where the story of Buffalo Altar originated. OutdoorCentral.com
Palo Duro Canyon, terrain, mountains
The setting of this performance overlooks the same topography that mused Harrigan's tale and Pettigrew's epiphany. Photo by Leaflet/Wikipedia

"But like I said, I ain't complaining," C.L. Pettigrew Sr., an 81-year-old oilman, asserts while looking back at six decades of drilling for black gold. He reminisces about the Goldsmith strike, the rise and fall of the Shamrock Hotel, million dollar deals and how Taco Bells and Dairy Queens have intruded on his way of living.

Amid the memories flooding back, a particular encounter stood out as one he would never forget: A property owner who opted to safeguard a sacred cave atop a bluff rather than enriching himself from royalties from striking oil. Pettigrew learned how he was connected to the essence of Texas, and it had nothing to do with oil or physical terrain. Rather, the meaning of Texas lived within him.

Pettigrew is on his way home.

This old-timer is a fictional character in Stephen Harrigan's short story Buffalo Altar, a tale that nods to the archeological find of bison bones at Caprock Canyons State Park in the Texas Panhandle. The fossils offered evidence of Texas life more than 10,000 years ago.

Composer Todd Frazier, of Houston, set this text to music in Buffalo Altar: A Texas Symphony, a 30-minute work commissioned by the University of Texas at Austin and his alma mater, the Eastman School of Music.

 Perhaps Buffalo Altar doesn't nod directly to this most essential resource. But it does surmise that what connects Texans across generations is a desire to recognize what's valuable and safeguard what's meaningful. 

In early August, it was performed at Palo Duro Canyon State Park's newest pavilion in Canyon, just 100-miles shy from where the story originated, overlooking the same topography that mused Harrigan's tale and Pettigrew's epiphany.

Buffalo Altar premiered in 1997 with the Houston Ballet Orchestra and was narrated by Barry Corbin. This chamber version was again narrated by Corbin, with accompaniment by pianist Marc Sanders and percussionist Chaz Robitaille.

Though the work is Frazier's and Harrigan's answer to a request for a work about the Lone Star State, in this case, that this performance was part of The Texas Lyceum was meaningful. This year's three-day conference that took place in Amarillo drew attendees to discuss the other liquid gold: water. 

"Though there is wide consensus on the existence of a problem regarding declining access to water, many people part ways when discussing who may be responsible for it and what to do about it," write conference co-chairs Anna Dragsbaek and Robert Jones in a welcome letter. 

Can oil and water mix? Guests and featured speakers, including T. Boone Pickens, State Rep. Allan Ritter, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and a coterie of boldface types, chitchatted about such subjects as hydrology, the link between water and oil-gas-electricity, water usage in municipal, industrial and agricultural applications — alongside the obligatory barbecue dinner, ranch outing and lunch buffet.

Perhaps Buffalo Altar: A Texas Symphony doesn't directly explore this most essential resource. But it does surmise that what connects Texans across generations is a desire to recognize what's valuable and protect what's meaningful.

And when that's out of balance, it's time to come together to fix things.

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