“Natural History” world premiere at Crater Lake dazzles all the senses

Composer Michael Gordon's piece bows amid the stunning natural beauty and history that inspired it.

For a first visit to Crater Lake National Park, things couldn’t have turned out much better. For years I had been urging my family to visit this hallowed Oregon landmark, and finally my wife, my daughter, and I had opted for a Southern Oregon getaway that would include a visit to it. Little did we know we would also be treated to a musical performance that combined natural beauty and cultural sophistication in a particularly Oregonian fashion.

While researching our planned trip, I noticed a warning that Crater Lake’s West Rim Drive would be closed for part of Friday, July 29, the day we had intended to drive up. For a moment, I was annoyed, until I read the reason for the closure: the world premiere of New York-based composer Michael Gordon’s “Natural History,” to be performed at the place that inspired it for an invite-only audience. I’m no classical music fanatic, but this seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Pulling the sort of strings one can pull when one writes for a non-profit arts journalism website (there are perks!), I arranged to have our names added to the guest list.

The Britt Orchestra at Crater Lake (Jim Teece)

The Britt Orchestra at Crater Lake (Jim Teece)

Driving from Ashland, we arrived in the nick of time, about five minutes before the scheduled start of the performance and with two dogs in tow. Near the edge of the crater’s rim, at The Watchman Overlook, several dozen folding chairs arranged in a semicircle supported a rapt crowd. In the center of them sat four members of the Klamath Tribes, members of the Britt Orchestra, and a 50-member choir. Following introductions and a benediction by the Klamath Tribal Elders, music director Teddy Abrams led the performers in a sublime realization of Gordon’s creation.

Gordon had been commissioned for this project well over a year ago, and had spent considerable time at the lake for inspiration. It showed. As I mentioned, I’m no music critic, but the piece evoked geological creation, the region’s first inhabitants, and a sense, simultaneously, of cyclical repetition and unflagging historical motion. When the traditional drumming of the Klamath Tribes members blended with the brass and percussion sections positioned behind the crowd (for maximum 3-D effect!), the impact was transformative and moving.

I found myself torn between closing my eyes to appreciate the dimensionality and range of the music, and wanting to visually absorb the stunning surroundings and the stoicism of the performers, who labored under an intense morning sun that pushed temperatures to a record high of 97 degrees before the day was done. By the end of the 30-minute performance, some members of the audience had started to wilt, but the performers, even those saddled with larger instruments, held firm.

The Britt Orchestra at Crater Lake (Jean Shirk)

The Britt Orchestra at Crater Lake (Jean Shirk)

To call this happening unique might seem facile, but in this case it’s true. There were other performances of “Natural History” on Friday and the following day, but none at this particular location. This was a non-repeatable, unforgettable aesthetic amalgamation. During our time in Southern Oregon, we saw some Shakespeare, spelunked in some caves, hiked to the top of a mountain, and enjoyed some fine food. But no one experience engaged all the senses like this one.

“Natural History” served as the kickoff event for this year’s Britt Festival in Jacksonville, which features more opportunities to enjoy beautiful music in beautiful outdoor spaces and runs through August 20, the day the Britt Orchestra repeats Gordon’s piece at its usual Jacksonville amphitheater venue. On the basis of my experience, it seems well worth the trip.

Hear Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud interview with Gordon after the performance.

And here’s an earlier interview with Gordon during his trip to Portland last year.

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