Photo by Chris Rogers Andrew Thoreson (left) and Isaac Sammis (right) produced Frozen River Film Festival's first film production, “The Lark Ascending.” Its debut screening this weekend will feature a live score with classical violin and piano.

Frozen River blends film, music in 'Lark'



Andrew Thoreson got a lot of mosquito bites to make this possible. The Winona videographer tried to cover every bit of exposed skin on his body with clothing when he tromped through the mosquito-infested woods above Holzinger Lodge this summer with a camera, but swarms of the blood-sucking pests still got through. When he presented the hard-won footage to his producer, Thoreson recalled Isaac Sammis’ response: “You need a steadier hand.”

“You have no idea,” Thoreson was thinking. “I was getting bit up.”

Thoreson and Sammis collaborated this year to create Frozen River Film Festival’s (FRFF) first-ever original film production, “The Lark Ascending.” It will debut this weekend. The short film presents a birds-eye view of the Mississippi River Valley near Winona from sunrise to sunset, with peach-colored morning light striking the cliffs above Fountain City and a hazy dusk settling over barges neatly parked amongst a tangle of backwaters. A pianist and violinist will perform a live score at the debut screening.


Thoreson piloted a drone to capture much of the footage for the film, a series of picturesque nature shots the creators say showcase the beauty of the Great River. To get one of the film’s sunrise shots, the young videographer woke up at 5 a.m., scoped out the perfect spot on the East End of Winona, took a few practice runs with the drone in the early morning darkness, and hoped he got the right shot just as the sun was coming up. “I did, luckily, right before my battery died,” Thoreson said.

Drones make aerial photography cheaper and more accessible, and drones can capture shots a plane never could. In a trailer for the film, Thoreson’s drone keeps pace with a train chugging through the marshes of the Trempealeau Wildlife Refuge. At the Alma power plant, the drone tracks straight up the side of a smokestack until it overtops the smokestack and the shot opens up to the whole river valley stretching southward to the Kellogg-Weaver Dunes and Weaver Bottoms.


Two musicians will accompany the film with a live performance of a classical piece by the same name — Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 1914 “The Lark Ascending.” Unlike most films, which feature pre-recorded soundtracks, the live music accompanying FRFF’s production will add a bit of spontaneity and in-person energy. “The musicians have room to make the piece flow and breathe,” Sammis said.


Ever since Sammis started working for the film festival, he has been looking for ways to make his passion for music part of his work with FRFF. He got the idea for “The Lark Ascending” after seeing London’s Philharmonia Orchestra perform a live score for the BBC nature documentary “Blue Planet,” and FRFF won grants from the Southeast Minnesota Arts Council and the Carl and Verna Schmidt Foundation to fund the production. Sammis hopes audiences will leave the FRFF film with a greater appreciation for the ability of instrumental music to be not just an abstract art form, but to represent things people experience in their daily lives. “Instrumental music has a lot of symbolism and depth to it,” he stated.


“This is our first production, and we are really excited to start contributing to the film industry,” FRFF Director Sara Enzenauer stated. “I think this project is great because it’s bringing together two art forms and celebrating the Winona area at the same time.”


The song “The Lark Ascending” is based on a poem, also of the same name, by George Meredith. The poem is an ode to the lark’s song and to divine natural beauty. “I was looking for pieces with symbolism to refer to natural beauty and home,” Sammis said of his choice in music. According to The Guardian, Williams wrote music inspired by Meredith’s poetry while watching soldiers prepare for a voyage to the battlefields of World War I, but, said Sammis, the music itself is about Williams’ love for the beauty of his homeland. “I thought that would be perfect for Winona,” Sammis added.

FRFF’s “The Lark Ascending” will debut at the Page Theatre at Saint Mary’s University, this Sunday, November 12, at 3 p.m. Tickets cost $12. For more information, visit


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