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History: Time travel, set to music

During its peak as a silver-rich boomtown in the 1870s, Pioche was a rough place marked by frequent gunfights, fistfights, you-name-it-fights. Its infamous Boot Hill cemetery is a testament to its trigger-happy ways. For instance, the grave for one Morgan Courtney, killed in 1873, reads, “Feared by some, respected by few, detested by others, shot in back 5 times from ambush.” It’s said that 72 men in Pioche died by gunshot before any citizen died of natural causes.

But don’t get the wrong idea — Pioche had its softer side. Consider the historic Thompson’s Opera House, built in 1873. It debuted with a production of Pygmalion and Galatea, and later staged plays and screened silent movies. It was a civilized oasis in a metal-crazed mining town. These days it’s used mostly for meetings and proms, but later this month a small orchestra from Southern Nevada will return it to its original function.

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Henderson-based salon orchestra Portable Masterpieces will hit the road in coming months for concerts in rural Nevada and California — including Pioche and Virginia City. But you might say this tour also entails some time travel: It’ll perform in these towns’ historic opera houses. Portable Masterpieces’ Nevada dates include a Nov. 16 gig at Thompson’s Opera House and a Jan. 11 concert at Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City.

“They’re unique, wonderful buildings, and all the history that happened there is fascinating,” says Steven Trinkle, Portable Masterpieces’ leader and conductor. “But it’s about more than just playing a concert in an interesting place for an underserved community. It’s about a marriage of two pieces of history.”

[HEAR MORE: Learn about the historic Westside School's role in the black community on " KNPR’s State of Nevada."]

The other element he’s talking about is stuffed in his suitcase — about 200 pieces of old sheet music from the early 1940s: ragtime, light classical, bodice-ripping melodrama. Trinkle rescued them 10 years ago from the Shenandoah University library before they were tossed out during renovations. Years later, while on a back-country road trip through Nevada, Trinkle had a literal Eureka moment when he caught sight of Eureka’s old opera house. “It’s an absolutely incredible place,” he says. “It looks like something right out of ‘Gunsmoke’ — old curtains from forever ago, beautiful wood floors. That’s when I made the connection. I’ve got all this music, and all these places around the West that are underserved by this kind of musical entertainment.”

Portable Masterpieces pianist and xylophonist — and Trinkle’s wife — Eugenie Burkett was awarded $10,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to pursue the tour. “We have all these great, historic performance spaces in rural Nevada, and they’re not really using them,” she says. “It’s especially significant that the music we’re performing was very typical of what had been performed in those locations for decades — I’ve been wanting to do this for years, and the people in Pioche are very excited.” And if these historic buildings could talk, well, they’d probably sing along.

As a longtime journalist in Southern Nevada, native Las Vegan Andrew Kiraly has served as a reporter covering topics as diverse as health, sports, politics, the gaming industry and conservation. He joined Desert Companion in 2010, where he has helped steward the magazine to become a vibrant monthly publication that has won numerous honors for its journalism, photography and design, including several Maggie Awards.