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Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News
Composer Crawford Gates has been playing the piano since age 8.

Mr. Crawford and Mr. Gates were champion debate partners in Southern California during the 1920s. Such was their esteem for each other that they pledged to name their firstborn sons after each other.

That's how Crawford Gates got his name. "Theoretically, there should be a Gates Crawford out there, too," he says. But Mr. Crawford only had daughters.

Crawford Gates has become a well-known name in music circles. Maybe you know it as the composer of the centennial musical "Promised Valley." Maybe you know it as the composer of music for the Hill Cummorah Pageant. Maybe you thought the man who owns it was dead.

"I was gone from Utah for 34 years. A lot of people thought I'd died," he jokes. But at 84 years of age, Gates is alive and well and is adding another title to the credits that follow his name: composer, educator, conductor — and now, record producer.

Since moving back to Utah in 1999, so many people have asked him where they can get copies of his music that he's decided to release a series of CDs of some of his original compositions.

His first release is a newly remastered version of a recording the Utah Symphony did of "Promised Valley." (Available in the ZCMI store at This Is The Place Heritage Park and the Museum of Church History and Art; other outlets soon.)

The story of how a 25-year-old man came to compose the music for "Promised Valley" is just one of many in his long career.

Gates became interested in music early. His first composition, at age 8, was played by his third-grade class. He started on piano, added violin at age 9, then went on to become proficient in trumpet, clarinet and harp. By the time he was 12, he had composed 10 pieces. From 12-16, he started composing for his friends who played cello, flute and sang a cappella. "They all got played."

Still, he could have ended up in physics. In his first year of college, he heard about a composition contest for students sponsored by the Stockton Symphony. First prize was $25. "That was a month's rent in those days," so he spent six months writing "Camelot" — long before that subject became a Broadway play.

He made a critical mistake with that work. "I'd read that the Boston Symphony had 104 pieces, so I wrote my work for a 104-piece orchestra. The Stockton Symphony only had 57 members." So even though he won first prize, they couldn't play it.

Gates took the work to the hundred-piece San Jose orchestra, and the director invited him to conduct it at an immediate practice session. That started off as a very bad experience, he says. Orchestra members were not particularly enthralled with the idea; he'd left all the sharps off the French horn parts he'd copied; and he'd never conducted an orchestra before. "If it had stayed like that, I probably would have gone into physics."

But the end of his piece had a "beautiful melody, with rich harmony, a very romantic quality. The whole thing changed in those last four minutes. By the end, the orchestra members were spontaneously applauding and whistling. That made me want to write for orchestras all my life."

First, however, an LDS mission, and then World War II, interrupted his studies. After the war, he thought he would go back East to study, when another bit of chance changed his direction. "I got a car, and two days later I was in an automobile accident. While I was waiting to get the car fixed so I could leave, the phone rang."

One of his former mission companions was working at KSL radio in Salt Lake City. The station had just fired its music director. Gates went to Salt Lake City, and "just as I was going into the interview, out walked Lowell Durham. I knew I didn't have a chance."

Durham got the job, but he hired Gates to do arrangements for the orchestra — in those days a live orchestra played every Friday night. "He also encouraged me to go to Brigham Young University and study with LeRoy Robertson. So interesting things grew out of that."

Another one was right around the corner. The centennial of the arrival of the pioneers was looming, and the LDS Church wanted a Broadway-type show to be part of the festivities. "They wanted something like 'Oklahoma,' but they couldn't get Rodgers and Hammerstein. They did get Arnold Sungaard to write the book and lyrics and offered a contract to Kurt Weill, but he had other commitments, so he couldn't accept it."

But the idea of hiring outsiders was creating controversy in Salt Lake City. "People wondered why in 100 years we hadn't produced anyone who could tell our own story. Everyone was talking about it. There were letters to the editor."

Durham, who was then also music critic of the Salt Lake Tribune, wrote a column saying there were plenty of LDS composers who could do the job. He listed eight, among them Lee Harline, who was working in Hollywood, and classical composers Arthur Shepherd and LeRoy Robertson. "No. 8 on the list was Crawford Gates. I can't tell you how I rose from being No. 8 to being No. 1, but by December I got the contract."

"Promised Valley" became an overwhelming success. "I think it's safe to say it was the biggest artistic endeavor generated in Utah. It went on to 2,700 performances on five continents in six languages. It played in downtown Salt Lake for 19 summers at the Temple View Theater, and then at Promised Valley Playhouse for another 14 years."

It also led to an association between Gates and Maurice Abravanel. "He asked me to conduct excerpts from it at one of his first concerts. He also asked me to be an assistant conductor of the symphony, but that was the very same week that I had been accepted into the doctoral program at the Rochester School of Music." Over the next 32 years Gates served as guest conductor for the Utah Symphony 25 times.

The symphony also commissioned three major works. "That was Abravanel's gift to my career." Just before Abravanel retired, he also requested that the Utah Symphony do the recording of "Promised Valley" that Gates has now released.

In 1957, Gates was asked to compose an original score for the Hill Cummorah Pageant. His "Symphony No. 2: Scenes from the Book of Mormon" was used through 1987. Then, when the pageant was updated and changed, he again provided the score.

Gates joined the music faculty at BYU in 1950, and from 1960 to 1966 he was chairman of the department. His proudest accomplishments from that tenure were helping with the design of the Fine Arts Center on campus and pulling off a wowie-zowie student performance at a national music educators' conference that demonstrated the "high quality of instruction" of which BYU was capable. Not only did the performance get a standing ovation, it "impacted a new generation of support, encouraging students to come to BYU."

In 1963, Gates took a sabbatical from BYU and went to conduct an orchestra in southern Wisconsin. He returned to BYU, but officials of the Beloit-Janesville Orchestra knew a good thing when they heard it and offered him a permanent job as conductor. "I still had a year to go in my chairmanship at BYU so I turned them down. But they came back and said they would hold the position, bringing in guest conductors for a year. That was a high compliment. I couldn't pass it up. I felt I had done all I could in Utah and that it was time to try something new."

After three years at Beloit he got a second job with the Quincy, Ill., Symphony, which meant traveling 600 miles back and forth each week. Then he was offered a job with the Rockford (Illinois) Symphony, so he switched to that for a number of years, still taking care of two orchestras.

During those years, Gates also found time to compose, including his "Symphony No. 5, Perelandra," based on works by C.S. Lewis, which was performed for Beloit-Janesville's 25th anniversary. "I never had an ovation like I got for that one."

In all, since age 8, there have been 859 compositions, says Gates. And so, while people still remember his name, he decided it was time to put some of them out on CD. Next up is his Book of Mormon music. Then he'd like to do some of his other symphonies, including "Perelandra," and maybe even his "Camelot."

"I'm on a roll," he says. "It's another exciting part of my life."

E-mail: [email protected]