John Muir - University of the Wilderness


"Chance" invites you to take a walk in the woods with the words of John Muir. A musical landscape surrounds you, excites you to follow around the next bend, and delivers you to a deep appreciation for one of our country's most influential naturalists.

Encouraging words from Muir's great-great-grandson, Robert Hanna:

"It seems your passion has connected to your music and is now sending you all throughout the world to share and inspire others to connect with the outdoors.  In using Muir's words, he would have no doubt enjoyed and encouraged your effort, and your music would have brought great delight to his wife, Louie, who was a very talented musician as well.  It was Louie who taught their daughters Wanda and Helen how to play the piano and violin.  This gift of music has been passed down to many in my family today, and I applaud your passion connected with my great-great-grandfather's life and words.  It's a beautiful way to tell his story and I'm sincerely thankful that you have chosen to do so through your incredible talent, which speaks to the world.

See you up the trail, friend.


Biography and show description

Composer/Performers Cheryl Leah and Ed Willett (a.k.a. Chance) began collaborating in Los Angeles in 1986.  In 1993 the duo moved to Wisconsin and from '94 to 2011 they were an integral part of the summer music festival and touring company, Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua, a company that specializes in the wedding of music, history, and theater. In their time with the festival they played pivotal roles in the production of 5 albums, 3 PBS specials, and over 300 performances.   2014 marked the debut of their program "John Muir - University of the Wilderness" which was immediately followed by a 10 performance run in the Mid-West, a 2015 tour to Scotland, and in 2016, 32 performances across 12 states, covering 26,000 miles in celebration of the centennial of the National Park Service.  As always, Leah and Willett continue to blaze their own trail bringing an incredible breadth of musical insight and experience to their offering to John Muir.

With Muir's own writings providing the unifying thread,  their transformative production embraces the long standing tradition of bringing the inspiration of the natural world to the concert hall.
In "University of the Wilderness", Muir's words are celebrated, reflected upon, and reinforced by an accompanying score of nature-forged new music. The score is the creation of Leah and Willett and since the program's debut in 2014 Willett has orchestrated the piece for performances for duo, quartet, and chamber orchestra. They describe the show's musical landscape as a place where contemporary, classical, and celtic music beautifully collide.

With the narrator as the production's purveyor of Muir's words, the ensemble takes us on a journey from Muir's childhood in Scotland to his young life in Wisconsin and finally to his profound and influential experiences in the great Sierra Nevada Mountains. What is revealed are the undercurrents and influences that helped create one of the world's great naturalists and forged his legacy that lives on in his Sierra Club, and in his role in history as the father of our national park system.

Our hopes for this performance

In creating the program, we kept as our guide the goal of reflecting the multi-dimensional nature of Muir, his indomitable spirit, his daring and adventurous nature, the beauty and the humor of the man. We determined that we would do this in accordance with our own “off the trail” philosophy that has guided us throughout our careers and tell this story by means of the “road less traveled”. This is not a historical account, but rather a performance that portrays a philosophical landscape aimed at inspiring all of us to revivify that part in ourselves that shares a kinship with Muir.
When many of us read his works we feel that he is articulating (in a manner more beautiful than we can) the very love we feel for the natural world. He was and is a charismatic figure who inspires us to try as best we can to live up to his example. I know from experience that this show leaves the audience with a desire to rekindle their relationship with his words and to resume (or continue or begin for the first time) following in his footsteps.