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National Parks Become Concert Halls To Celebrate Park Service's 100th Birthday

National parks will offer free admission on the final weekend of August in honor of the 100th birthday of the National Park Service. Before then, the park service centennial is being celebrated with music.

Southern Oregon's Britt Orchestra and the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra are among more than a dozen arts organizations to commission original pieces for this occasion.

The Britt Orchestra premiered a new symphony inspired by Crater Lake National Park at the rim of the park’s caldera on Friday. The piece will be presented again on the Britt Festival stage in Jacksonville, Oregon on August 20.

"I have participated in several world premieres of pieces during my lifetime, but this takes the prize for the most dramatic," said Ida Mercer, a cellist in the Britt Orchestra. "To be standing in this incredibly gorgeous part of the world and play this piece to the great heavens is really pretty incredible."

The Tacoma Symphony's park centennial project is a "symphonic poem" for chorus and orchestra written in homage to Mount Rainier by Puyallup, Washington, native Daniel Ott. It is scheduled to premiere in 2017.

Later this week, a seven-member ensemble from the Eastman School of Music launches a tour of national park sites in Washington state. The group Music In the American Wild will play from a repertoire of new chamber music pieces representing the inspirations of eleven different composers associated with the school in Rochester, New York.

The National Endowment for the Arts provided seed money to dozens of organizations to commission musical projects to celebrate the National Park Service centennial. Recipients such as the Britt Festival had to raise additional money to hire composers and present the performances, which have been mostly free up till now.

The Britt Festival commissioned New Yorker Michael Gordon to compose its piece to honor the 100th anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service. Gordon visited Crater Lake last summer and then again in the dead of winter to collect impressions and seek inspiration. Park superintendent Craig Ackerman and Britt Festival music director Teddy Abrams acted as tour guides.

"As we went around the lake, the project grew from a piece for an orchestra of 40 - which is already a substantial number of musicians - to including a chorus, to including spatially-placed brass and percussion musicians in the environment," Gordon recalled. "And then they said the Klamath Tribe sometimes comes here and does ritual singing and playing. I asked them, 'Can you introduce me to them?' So we were able to include a drum group from the Klamath Tribe."

"It felt like being the eye of the storm," said Taylor Tupper, a Klamath tribal singer in the Steiger Butte Drum which was placed at the center of the orchestra. "Steiger Butte has never sang in a orchestra before or been in this type of situation. It was pretty amazing. We just felt blessed to be a part of it."

"When I went home to work on the piece, one of the things I was thinking about was that there is a symphony going on here always," Gordon said in an interview. "For hundreds and thousands of years, the snow is melting, thunder is cracking, frogs are croaking, wolves are howling and birds are chirping and cicadas are buzzing. We get a chance to come to the rim with this huge number - I think there were close to 150 musicians - and join in on that symphony. And that's the approach I took when I started composing."

Gordon's 25-minute symphony was titled "Natural History." Several musicians who played or sung in the premiere said the music was difficult to categorize or fit into a genre. It sounded modern, even minimalist a times, but had melodic passages, a significant Native American musical component and clearly evoked a sense of place.

"What I really heard, particularly in the opening, was a real connection to the natural world," said Ackerman, the park superintendent. "It sounded very much like the sounds that you hear in nature, which is what I believe was what Michael was trying to accomplish. I could hear water running. I could hear snow falling. I could hear the wind blowing in some of the music."

"This is an incredible present," added Ackerman.

Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
A line of percussionists and brass players were arrayed behind and among the audience at Crater Lake National Park to create ''spatial'' effects.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.