Commissioned by the Bozeman Symphony, The Last Best Place is inspired by the city of Bozeman and its surrounding landscape. I visited Bozeman in May 2021 and took in the sights, hiking in the Gallatin Mountain Range, eating at restaurants on main street, and touring Montana State University. The city has boomed in recent years, and is one of the fastest-growing in the country. I spent a lot of time chatting with locals (I think I visited every coffee shop in Bozeman!), including musicians, artists and gallerists, journalists, and politicians. A common theme emerged in my conversations—a fear that the place was changing, and that something essential about Bozeman was in peril of being lost. While each person’s version of this story reflected different types of change—the shifting character of the cowtown-turned-tech-entrepreneur-hub, the influx of wealthy newcomers pricing locals out of housing, the encroachment of humans into the natural ecosystem of “America’s Serengeti”—the contours remained the same. The details of these stories are unique to Bozeman, but reflect the broader conflict between growth and conservation that communities across the country are grappling with. The title of the piece refers to the unofficial nickname of Montana, whose adoption as a slogan by the tourism industry has ironically contributed to the explosion of growth, putting at risk the very thing the nickname represents.
The piece opens energetically with a series of quickly-alternating vignettes representing the hustle and bustle of Bozeman. Rhythms reminiscent of galloping horses recall the town’s origins in the Wild West. Out of all of this activity emerges a distant and mysterious music in the muted brass, suggesting an imposing stillness that contrasts with the raucous character of the music heard so far. To me this music represents the natural landscape of the Gallatin Valley, at this point shrouded in mist, which is how the mountains appeared when I first arrived in Bozeman after an unseasonably late snowstorm. The music of the city soon returns, but eventually begins to frantically pile on top of itself, building to a boisterous climax. Out of the commotion emerges once again the music of the natural landscape, now full of majesty and brilliance, repeating and gaining momentum as it builds towards the close of the piece.