The annual Britt Orchestra Season anchors Oregon’s Britt Music & Arts Festival with three weeks of creative and adventurous open-air programming in the scenic Rogue Valley, also home to the renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Under the galvanizing leadership of Music Director Teddy Abrams, the 2018 season draws inspiration from this year’s Bernstein centennial, juxtaposing music by the 20th-century master with examples of the works he championed, including Mahler’s monumental Sixth Symphony and the suite from Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Among other highlights are a new festival co-commission from Gabriel Kahane, addressing the twin crises of housing insecurity and homelessness, and recent compositions by Mason Bates, Christopher Cerrone, and Edgar Meyer. These hot-off-the-press new works rub shoulders with cornerstones of the orchestral literature by Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, and Shostakovich and a family-friendly celebration of “Classics in the Movies.” Featuring collaborations with vocal and instrumental soloists Jonathan Biss, Measha Brueggergosman, Sasha Cooke, Anthony Marwood, and Edgar Meyer, the 2018 Britt Orchestra Season runs from July 25 to August 11, with ticket prices lowered for the second consecutive summer.
Though only 31 years old, Teddy Abrams has been Music Director of the Britt Orchestra since 2014 and recently extended his contract with the ensemble for another six seasons. It was he who led the orchestra two years ago in the world-premiere performance of Michael Gordon’s Natural History; featuring local tribal drummers, this once-in-a-lifetime event was captured on disc by Cantaloupe Music and subsequently chronicled in the Emmy-nominated documentary Symphony for Nature: The Britt Orchestra at Crater Lake, as seen on PBS stations nationwide. Abrams also recently made his triumphant debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and has just concluded a fourth transformative season at the helm of the Louisville Orchestra, crowned by the release of their chart-topping first recording together and the premiere of Abrams’s own genre-straddling oratorio about Muhammad Ali, which engaged the Louisville community in an exhilarating, multicultural salute to one of its best-loved heroes. As NPR Music advises, “to help boost interest in classical music, look no further than Teddy Abrams.”
It is the young Music Director’s creative vision that helps set Britt’s programming apart. As he explains: “This is one of the only festivals where we are engineering concerts that give audiences the entire package. This is not just a beautiful venue in a gorgeous natural setting in a great town. What we are offering are spiritually rich, well-thought-out programs that are designed to really engage the audience.”
These programs are enhanced by the outstanding natural beauty of their al fresco surroundings. Abrams says: “There is something really remarkable about hearing music in this hillside venue that accommodates around 2,200 people. Immediately listeners discover there is no barrier with the orchestra. You really feel like you are submerged in nature, with the audience looking down in a natural amphitheater. Everyone feels like they are right up close to the orchestra, and no one feels like they are at the back of a big lawn.” Gabriel Kahane co-commission on homelessness and housing insecurity (July 27)
A centerpiece of the 2018 orchestral season is the Southern Oregon premiere of emergency shelter intake form (2018), a new festival co-commission from Gabriel Kahane, “one of the most visible representatives of a generation of Brooklyn musicians who bring individual voices to many genres at once” (Washington Post). The new work, which recently premiered at the co-commissioning Oregon Symphony, is almost an hour in length and addresses the experience of homelessness. Kahane describes how he went about creating it:
“I have talked to a number of people who have experienced homelessness. They all talked about the bureaucracy and about the experience of ‘sleeping in chairs.’ When you are trying to get a shelter bed, you go to the intake center and you are monitored to see what your mental health looks like, whether you are withdrawing from substances, etc., and you have to basically sleep in a chair for a couple of nights and up to a week or more. It is sort of a rite of passage within the community of people who experience homelessness.
“So I started thinking about the banality of going through that crushing bureaucracy on top of experiencing extreme poverty. That led to the intake form as a jumping-off point for the libretto. … A lot of the libretto is in the form of a questionnaire. The piece places the audience as the imagined person trying to gain entry into a shelter.”
To perform emergency shelter intake form, Abrams and the orchestra will be joined by trailblazing Grammy-nominated soprano Measha Brueggergosman, and vocalists Kristen Toedtman and Holcombe Waller. After the performance, which will also include the Divertimento for Orchestra by Leonard Bernstein, Britt will host an open-forum discussion about Kahane’s new work and housing insecurity in the southern Oregon community. Britt has worked closely with Rogue Retreat and the Maslow Project to facilitate the discussion, and both organizations will have tables in Britt’s Performance Garden, where they will discuss their services for the housing insecure. Paintings about homelessness by Aaron Burgess will be on display, and the evening’s guest artists, including Abrams and Kahane, will join the discussion from the main stage. Britt will also hold a pre-concert instrument drive.
Abrams says: “The subject matter is something very relevant to southern Oregon, which has a major homelessness issue. We’re trying to combine forces with local homeless coalitions like the Maslow Project and essentially create a dynamic of conversation and awareness and make this a focal point of Britt. A kind of giving back that we do while the orchestra is in town.”
The Divertimento is one of several works by Leonard Bernstein programmed in the 2018 season, of which a primary focus is the Bernstein centennial: a worldwide celebration of the cultural icon’s 100th birthday. Teddy Abrams, whose “gifts as an educator and sense of civic responsibility are reminiscent of his hero, Leonard Bernstein” (Departures magazine), makes an especially powerful advocate for the late composer, conductor, educator, cultural ambassador, and humanitarian. Joined by vocal soloist Sasha Cooke, Abrams leads performances of Bernstein’s First Symphony (“Jeremiah”), which uses texts from the biblical Book of Lamentations to tell the prophet’s story (July 28), and with British violin soloist Anthony Marwood, the Principal Artistic Partner of Canada’s Les Violons du Roy, he undertakes Bernstein’s Serenade (After Plato’s “Symposium”) alongside the overture to his operetta Candide (Aug 10).
Unusually, the Britt Orchestra Season celebrates the centennial not just with music by Bernstein himself, but with examples of the many important concert staples he conducted, recorded, and featured in his teaching. Thus Abrams and the orchestra perform Brahms’s tragic Fourth Symphony (July 28); Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, for which they will be joined by Jonathan Biss, “a truly world-class pianist” (The Guardian; Aug 3); Richard Strauss’s popular tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra (Aug 10); Shostakovich’s neoclassical Ninth Symphony (Aug 3); the suite from Copland’s quintessentially American ballet, Appalachian Spring (Aug 4); and Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, the epic evening-length work with which the season concludes (Aug 11). As Abrams observes, Mahler’s symphony continues to resonate with audiences today because it is “not afraid to face the harsh and sometimes unknown realities of our existence,” yet “also explores hope, the indomitable will of our species, and so much more.”
New music by Mason Bates, Christopher Cerrone and Edgar Meyer
In addition to Kahane’s new commission, the season lineup features three works composed just last year. They are Passage, written to commemorate the John F. Kennedy centennial by Musical America’s Composer of the Year 2018 Mason Bates, with Grammy Award-winning mezzo Sasha Cooke as soloist (July 28); New Piece for Orchestra by composer and double-bass virtuoso Edgar Meyer, a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient (Aug 4); and Will There Be Singing by Rome Prize-winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist Christopher Cerrone (Aug 3). Both Meyer and Cerrone will be in attendance, Meyer serving as soloist in his own Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra in E (Aug 4) and Cerrone – the inaugural incumbent of Britt’s innovative, one-of-a-kind Composer-Conductor Fellowship program – taking the podium for Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture (Aug 3).
Abrams explains, “We realized while creating a conducting fellowship last year, there are so many other assistant conductor positions out there which are really great for people who are already on that track. I thought let’s go find a composer who is really skilled and really talented musically, but maybe has never conducted before. And what an interesting take on this. It turns out it’s a pretty big need and a real niche market. That’s how we’re able to get somebody like Chris who’s a major composer.”
Pops: “Classics in the Movies”
True to Britt’s inclusive ethos, the orchestral season launches with a festive night of pops, when Abrams and the orchestra offer a specially priced program of music beloved from television and film by composers ranging from Mozart, Rossini and Wagner to five-time Academy Award-winner John Williams (July 25).
About the Britt Orchestra and Britt Music & Arts Festival
Founded in 1963, the Britt Orchestra brings together 90 professional musicians from across the States for three weeks of open-air performances each summer. Forming the heart of the annual Britt Music & Arts Festival, the Britt Orchestra Season takes place in Jacksonville, Oregon, less than half an hour’s drive from the world-renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The festival was the brainchild of Portland conductor John Trudeau and musician Sam McKinney, who came to southern Oregon in search of the perfect location. When they discovered the superb natural acoustics and stunning views of Britt Park – the former hillside estate of Jacksonville pioneer Peter Britt, a Swiss-born photographer who became one of Oregon’s most celebrated citizens – they knew that they had found it. In summer 1963, with a small chamber orchestra on a makeshift stage, the first summer outdoor music festival in the Pacific Northwest was born.
Since its grassroots beginnings, the non-profit organization has grown from a two-week chamber festival to a multi-disciplinary summer-long concert series with year-round education and engagement programs too. Constructed 40 years ago, the 2,200-capacity Britt Pavilion enables Britt to present world-class artists while maintaining the intimacy for which it is known.