“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.


Pickathon Prep Delayed to Save Birds

On Audubon Society advice, fest volunteers rearrange their trailblazing schedule.

Pickathon Volunteers

After brush-clearing was officially postponed on Saturday, a smaller work crew stuck around Pendarvis Farm on Sunday to bookkeep and paint.

“Oh my god, the fiddles, oh, YES, the orchestration!” Sherry Pendarvis interjects mid-sentence as the elaborate intro to James Brown’s “Man’s World” swells in the kitchen behind her. Kicked back with a Sunday afternoon beer and cigarette as farm dog Freckles curls up nearby, the longtime proprietress of Pendarvis Farm has been explaining why volunteers for summertime roots-rock fest Pickathon have put their spring campsite cleanup efforts on hold.

On Saturday morning, in response to an open call, almost a hundred volunteers arrived bright and early at the Happy Valley locale with work clothes and gardening tools. They fanned out over the 80-acre Pendarvis property, removing debris from would-be campsites and untangling brambles from some of the iconic statuary (a giant piano, a massive black stallion) that Sherry, a parade float maker and stage dresser, has dragged home from her day job over the years. But at some point during their blackberry-hacking and fallen-branch stacking, the crew started to worry for the forest’s avian residents.

“We were listening to the birds,” says Sherry in the least casual sense of the phrase. Worried that the group’s work might be disrupting her farm’s already-precarious fledglings, she made an investigative phone call to the Audubon Society.

Sherry Pendarvis, whose farm hosts Pickathon, relaxes after putting the spring "work party" on a bird-preserving pause.

Sherry Pendarvis, whose farm hosts Pickathon, relaxes after putting the spring work party on a bird-preserving pause.

When Audubon confirmed her hunch, she quickly rearranged the farm’s priorities: They’d postpone the rest of their campsite clearing until three weeks before the fest, and from now on, forest winnowing will take place in the late fall. “The impact on the animals will be less,” Sherry explains. “The birds will have fledged, the bunnies will know how to get home….Quail love a brush pile; pileated woodpeckers need snags; we don’t want to take these things away from them.”

Behind her, a small remnant work crew takes a hula-hooping break, then regroups to paint a nearby retaining wall. Sherry gets back at it, too, discussing lighting in the Galaxy Barn. (After all, putting the woods on Do Not Disturb is no excuse to waste daylight.)

Is it typical for rock festival planners to be this conscientious about their scenic settings? It would seem not. Sasquatch Festival, a regional contemporary of Pickathon, boasts that its beautiful basalt cliffs over the Columbia Gorge are a natural wonder, but hasn’t shown much evidence of environmental concern for the land, admitting thousands more in 2012 than the year before and visibly failing to keep pace with cleanup. In the crowded campsites, mountains of loose trash formed around overstuffed receptacles and dust devils whirled the debris high into the sky. We’ll soon see whether 2013—rumored to be even more populous—is a repeat performance.

Coachella in California is similar in age and scope to Sasquatch, and though it’s become an easy mark for ridicule in other respects (Bullet Magazine recently panned its spring-break-style party culture while Jimmy Kimmel made sport of concertgoers’ musical illiteracy), to its credit it has begun baby-steps of environmental stewardship, rewarding car-poolers and implementing first a plastic-water-bottle exchange, and eventually fest-issued refillable cups to reduce waste.

Elder eco-champ Pickathon has not only maintained land use ethics but steadily expanded them, partnering year-round with Clackamas Soil & Water Conservation and Friends of Trees, and hosting SOLV site visits to assess impact.  Organizers have also added a multitude of eco-upgrades: shuttle transport from Portland, solar showers, re-usable plates and cups to make the fest “plastic free”—and now, a brush-clearing schedule that syncs to the needs of the native birds.

Admittedly, Pickathon is a much smaller-capacity fest than juggernauts like Sasquatch—but that’s not by accident, either. Currently admitting around 5,000 people (less than a fifth of Coachella and Sasquatch), Pickathon recently polled its regulars asking if they’d rather raise capacity or price. “Around 90% voted ‘price,'” declares Operations Manager Ronnie Beoicourt. “So we’re keeping it small.”

After determining that it doesn’t blend into the trees anyway, volunteers repaint a green retaining wall brick-red.

Volunteers enjoy a hula-hooping break.

Volunteers enjoy a hula-hooping break.

Alex Fitch makes a snack. His band, Typhoon, is one of a select few (including Decemberists) that have recorded an album at Pendarvis Farm.

Pieter Hilton makes a snack. His band, Typhoon, is one of a hand-picked few (including Decemberists) that have recorded an album at Pendarvis Farm. He gives back by regularly helping with farm upkeep.



Britanie Kessler, who attended her first Pickathon last year, turned out for the work party, helping with everything from manual labor to sorting receipts.


Pickathon Bookkeeping

Ronnie Beoicourt organizes receipts Pickathon-style: beside a bonfire, on a rusty pegboard he metalcrafted himself.

More from A. L. Adams >>
Support Oregon ArtsWatch >>


Oregon ArtsWatch Archives