Enjoy new music composed and performed to celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service in free outdoor concerts at Washington’s three national parks in August — and one urban venue in Seattle Saturday.
SAN JUAN ISLAND NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK — A snake came to visit, and inchworms, too, glissading on gossamer silk, right into the percussion section.
But they only added to the magic, as the ensemble of musicians started to play under the shade of massive, old big leaf maples. In celebration of the centennial of the National Park Service, the musicians are performing all new works by composers that evoke and are inspired by the sounds and experience of nature.
The eleven composers and seven musicians — on flute, clarinet, French horn, violin, viola, cello and percussion — all are from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, New York.
The players began their scheduled Music of the American Wild tour in national parks back east in June and now are on tour in all three Washington national parks this month, concluding with a performance at the Hall of Mosses Trail in the Hoh Rainforest. The ensemble plays at one urban venue, too: the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Seattle Saturday night.
For the players, and their audience, everything is fresh and new, from the music to the instruments. The string players are using carbon fiber instruments donated for the concert series, suited to the rigor of the outdoors. The clarinetist is using a plastic instrument with synthetic reeds. And the percussionist is playing an eclectic mix of gear easily packed or shipped, including two toy pianos and a set of metal mixing bowls mailed by the composer from his kitchen, for their precise pitch and tone when struck with a mallet.
With babes in arms, sun hats and camp chairs, on benches in the shade or basking flat on their backs in the sun, listeners old, young, and in between gathered Thursday for the performers’ first Washington concert on the parade ground at English Camp on San Juan Island. They sat in close to the musicians — no stage or concert hall here — in a setting both intimate and grand as all outdoors.
A deer watched at the edge of the woods, and a listener in the front row was careful not to disturb the slick-smooth garter snake by the end of his bench, basking, head up, and attentive. The snake stayed for much of the concert before slinking off through the grass.
Flutist and ensemble director Emlyn Johnson said she got the idea for the concerts two years ago, with her boyfriend and soon-to-be husband, ensemble cellist Daniel Ketter. On a hike together at a park in New York, she thought, wouldn’t it be splendid to be playing music outdoors as beautiful as the setting?
On the strength of that inspiration, with encouragement from park rangers in lots of planning phone calls, an idea was born: to create and launch an outdoor concert series in the national parks intended to draw new audiences to the parks, and engage visitors in a fresh way with nature.
“All of us have conservatory training, there can be that elitism. But we wanted to play for different audiences, in different places, reaching everyone we can on their own terms,” Johnson said. “It’s the same as the parks, they are there for everyone who comes to be inspired.”
And so here they were on a sun-splashed, perfect August afternoon, all blue skies and sparkling water and cool breezes.
At every concert, not only the weather but the acoustics of the space, and inspiration of the place, influence the players and their sound. The giant big leaf maples overhead shaped the sounds of this concert, as did the water’s edge, the wheeling gulls, and thrumming of the restive wind.
Sunlight glowed through the tree canopy, and the tide slunk slowly up the beach, as dragonflies surfed the breeze.
“You are listening in an atmosphere in which there are other things happening,” Ketter said. “It’s more than just people shifting in their chairs in an auditorium.”
With their sheet music clamped to their stands with clothespins, the musicians listened to one another intently; performing new music with no conductor is demanding, especially in an outdoor setting. Theirs was a sensitive, carefully balanced ensemble, with a sound surging and blending with the fluid exactitude of a murmuration of birds.
Just add imagination and the music evoked the movements of animals, from the upswept flight of a bird, to the twitching of a whiskered, exploring nose. The string players’ tremolo, bowed close to their instruments’ bridge, generated the tiny scurry of busy legs and the energy of the hive, one bee’s antenna telegraphing urgent news to another.
Percussionist Colleen Bernstein rendered the sound of crackling ice, rockfalls, the knock of a woodpecker, the swish of grass in tall meadows, and hoof beats of a running deer. Some tones were bright and percussive as water over rocks, while the shimmering of chimes she let the wind play was soft and meditative as the trees’ filtered light.
Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center, Seattle
Saturday, 8 p.m. Tickets: $5-$15
North Cascades National Park
All performances are free.
Sunday, 7 p.m., Environmental Learning Center
Monday, 1 p.m., Visitor Center
Monday, 7 p.m., Newhalem Campground Amphitheater
Wednesday, 1 p.m., Visitor Center
Wednesday, 7 p.m., Newhalem Campground Amphitheater
Mount Rainier National Park
All performances free with park admission.
Friday, 7:30 p.m., Ohanapecosh Campground Amphitheater
Aug. 13, 2 p.m.., Paradise Visitor Center
Aug. 14, 2 p.m., Sunrise Visitor Center
Olympic National Park
All performances free with park admission.
Aug. 15, 7:30 p.m., Heart O’the Hills Campground
Aug. 16, 5 p.m., Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center
Aug. 17, 1 p.m.-4 p.m., intermittent performances along the Hoh Rainforest’s Hall of Mosses Trail
Source: Music in the American Wild
The composers’ and musicians’ intentions were not always literal. Sometimes the music conveyed just a feeling from being in nature: humility, grandeur, solace, a contemplative peace, or exhilaration, brilliant as sun from behind a cloud.
For an afternoon, the harmony of nature was not just an expression, but an experience, for players and listeners alike.
“I usually play in an orchestra,” said clarinetist Ellen Breakfield-Glick. “Here I am a bird, or water.”