The view from a Sierra Valley ranch
The view from a Sierra Valley ranch | Credit: Jeff Kaliss

Drive up Route 80 to the mountain city of Truckee. And then, instead of making a right turn toward the crowded ski slopes and casinos of Tahoe, take a left along the winding road that leads into Sierra, the second-least-populated county in the state of California. Splendid surprises await you there, among them, this week, a series of public concerts and master classes involving the county’s schoolchildren, a visiting concert pianist, and nature-inspired works by a San Francisco composer.

The series is dubbed “Children Under the Blue Dome,” in reference both to the public school students of Sierra County, who’ll witness and participate in the musical offerings, and to the featured world premiere of JJ Hollingsworth’s piano suite Under the Blue Dome. The week of music is produced by Musica Sierra, whose stated mission is “to enrich the cultural experience of Sierra County with world-class, year-round performances and musical education, accessible and affordable for all.”

The organization was founded in 2019 by husband and wife Owen and Lindsay McIntosh. The couple met in college at Cal State Stanislaus. She’d grown up in Truckee; he was raised in similarly remote and mountainous Trinity County, west of Redding.

Owen and Lindsay McIntosh
Owen and Lindsay McIntosh, founders of Musica Sierra

Their mutual musical aspirations took them on to graduate study in the Boston area, she at the Longy School of Music and he at New England Conservatory. On one of their regular return visits to the Sierras, they were married. They also share an affection for early music. Owen sings in a high, pure tenor favored in that genre. After his schooling, he toured with the Boston-based Blue Heron vocal ensemble and figured in several of the group’s award-winning recordings, as well as made appearances with The Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Apollo’s Fire. Lindsay changed from modern oboe to Baroque oboe under the mentorship of Gonzalo Ruiz and joined the newly created Juilliard415 early music ensemble, which prompted the McIntoshes’ move to New York City.

The demands of Juilliard and Owen’s bourgeoning freelance career allowed for little private time. “For a while, people didn’t think I had a husband,” says Lindsay, over breakfast with the couple’s two small children in Loyalton, Sierra County’s only incorporated “city,” with an estimated population of 734.

After Juilliard, Lindsay explored event production as an employee of the Brooklyn-based National Sawdust. In 2017, she and Owen applied her new skills to the creation of a summer series in Truckee. It included a medieval dance party and a performance of Bach’s “Coffee Cantata,” in English, at a downtown coffee bar. “Everybody was transfixed,” recalls Owen.

The offer of a good-paying post as deputy director at Classical Tahoe, producer of a summer festival a half hour from Truckee, motivated the McIntoshes to abandon their fast-lane East Coast careers and return to California for good. “My friends thought we were crazy,” says Lindsay, “but we were in our 30s, our parents were here, and we wanted to have a family.” They moved to Incline Village, and Owen pivoted to pursuing a master’s in education from National University online, which led to his employment with the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District.

When Lindsay’s job with Classical Tahoe ended unexpectedly, the couple moved in with Lindsay’s mother in Loyalton. In 2019, baby Lachlan was born, and Musica Sierra was created.

JJ Hollingsworth’s arrival in the Sierra Valley reads as another kind of homecoming. She’d grown up in Colorado cattle country, and after studying trumpet and competing in rodeos while in public school, she studied piano at the Lamont School of Music in Denver. Under the Blue Dome, her very first composition for solo piano, is a suite of scenes from her Colorado childhood. It got her accepted for advanced study at both Juilliard and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Over a dinner interview in Truckee, she explains that she chose the latter school for its location “because I had to be able to step outside and see the sky. That was my blue dome.”

During and after her master’s program, Hollingsworth lived in modest rentals in San Francisco and was employed as a medical transcriber. She volunteered for Africa relief and married Ethiopian research microbiologist Alemayehu Mergia. He helped Hollingsworth host a concert series at Temple United Methodist Church.

In 2012, Hollingsworth was faced with a windfall inheritance after her father’s passing. The proceeds from the sale of his cattle ranch, by IRS regulations, had to be converted to the purchase of other commercial property within a limited time. Wandering the streets of the Outer Sunset, Hollingsworth and her husband located a spacious estate for sale, with an upstairs living room they could configure for the staging of musical and other performances. This became The Forte House, which for a decade has hosted classical and jazz events and piano pedagogy, as well as serving as a primary residence.

Composer JJ Hollingsworth stepping out
Composer JJ Hollingsworth stepping out of the Lost Marbles Ranch in the Sierra Valley, one of Musica Sierra’s performance venues | Credit: Jeff Kaliss

But the cost of the house didn’t consume the entire inheritance. Just before the IRS deadline, in a last-minute online search, Hollingsworth found and put an offer on an additional property in a town and county she knew nothing about but looked “very pretty and within my budget.” The next morning, she and Alem set out to inspect their new acquisition.

“We drove up Route 89, and suddenly this enormous valley opened up, with green pastures surrounded by mountains,” she recalls about her arrival in Sierraville. “I had no idea that there was a connection with cattle ranching there.” It felt like a return to her place of raising, and her “cabin” proved able to accommodate paying guests, as well as small musical events, just like The Forte House. She dubbed it the Sierraville Cabin Artists Retreat for Food and Fun, or SCARFF.

Hollingsworth was further delighted to find a fellow composer, Chris Smith, as a close neighbor of her home away from home. In 2015, with a Mathushek baby grand piano in place, she began hosting house concerts at SCARFF, getting the word out with notices at the post offices in Sierraville and Loyalton, 13 miles away. “The ranchers came, and the cowboys came, in their Stetsons and jeans,” she says. “And they were the most rapt audience. They were discovering classical music.”

The Fauna Sierra quilt, created by composer JJ Hollingsworth | Credit: Jeff Kaliss

She connected with the McIntoshes at a meeting of the Feather River Land Trust, devoted to protecting the impressive biodiversity of the Sierra Valley. They told her about Musica Sierra’s “Musical Headwaters” series, providing musical support to public school programs about the environment. The organization made Hollingsworth its composer-in-residence earlier this year, and she began work on Fauna Sierra, a suite evoking six of the Sierra Valley’s animals, birds, and insects. The piece, which features poetic lyrics, was inspired by a quilt the composer created, whose panels depict the local fauna, as well as the poetic text, instruments, and sections of musical scores. The quilt is being raffled through the remainder of this year as a fundraiser for music education.

Hollingsworth introduced the McIntoshes to pianist Carolyn Enger, an international touring and recording artist who was booked for the ongoing Forte House series and then invited by Musica Sierra last winter to become an artist-in-residence. Enger’s current week-long residence, after her Oct. 23 concert at SCARFF, includes a rehearsal with elementary and high school string players in Loyalton, a performance of Hollingsworth’s Under the Blue Dome at the Yuba Theatre in Downieville, high school master classes in Loyalton, and performances of the “Monarch” movement from Fauna Sierra. The ensemble for the new composition will include children on violin, cello, and desk bells, Lindsay McIntosh on modern oboe, and Owen McIntosh singing.

Throughout the week, Enger will incorporate kid-friendly, nature-themed compositions by Bach, Robert Schumann, and Edward MacDowell and will provide some basic piano pedagogy. “I want to teach these children as much as I can in this short period of time,” she states from her Englewood, New Jersey, home base, where the learning environment is much different. “Here, there’s a lot more money, kids have pianos in their homes, and when their parents were children, they took piano lessons. And they have the concerts and theaters of New York City close by.”

Hollingsworth will host Enger back at The Forte House in San Francisco for an Oct. 30 performance of the composer’s Under the Blue Dome and Cobalt Hymn, as well as music by Jonathan Bingham. Enger expects to return regularly to the Sierra Valley, as music instruction in the schools and additional instrumentation move toward a full performance of the Fauna Sierra suite within the next few years. For more information about this week’s Musica Sierra series and other events and programs, and to donate and bid on the Fauna Sierra quilt, go to the organization’s website.