John Trudeau, who founded Jacksonville's Britt Festival in 1963, has died in Portland at the age of 81.

John Trudeau, who founded Jacksonville's Britt Festival in 1963, has died in Portland at the age of 81.

Trudeau and a friend, Sam McKinney, came to Jacksonville in 1962 while searching for a site for an outdoor music festival. They were captivated by the site that was homesteaded in the 1850s by Peter Britt and soon realized it had suitable acoustics for outdoor performances. The next summer, on Aug. 13, Trudeau conducted the first performance of the Britt Festival Orchestra on a plywood stage with lights hung inside tin cans.

"He was known for his incredible passion for music and motivation that was contagious," said Angela Warren, artistic administrator of Britt's Classical Festival.

Warren said Trudeau's commitment to the festival fostered a deep and lasting loyalty among those who worked with him.

"People who worked with him in the '60s were still in touch with him," she said.

The Britt Festival was the first of its kind in the Northwest, and over the years it expanded to include artists in jazz, folk, country, rock and dance in a season that runs from early June to past Labor Day.

Trudeau recruited musicians from around the nation for the orchestra's annual two-week concert seasons, and his vision carried the festival through its early years, said Brian Mullen, who served as president of the festival's board of directors during the mid-1960s.

"He had a nation-wide reputation and he was able to get some terrific musicians," Mullen said Friday. "It wasn't an easy task to mold (the orchestra) into a single entity. They were never an entity anywhere else but here."

Trudeau's association with Southern Oregon began in 1955, when he and other members of the Portland Symphonic Brass Ensemble were invited to perform an evening concert on the Elizabethan stage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He met OSF founder Angus Bowmer, and they talked about the possibility of establishing a classical musical festival somewhere in Southern Oregon.

Trudeau and McKinney were looking for a site that was similar to Tanglewood, the site of an outdoor music festival a couple of hours west of Boston, said Mary Margaret Mullen, Brian Mullen's wife. The Britt grounds and Jacksonville's historic buildings filled the bill, and Trudeau provided the artistic inspiration.

"The musicians loved coming here," she said. "His choice of music was music they'd never get to play in their regular seasons."

Trudeau was associate conductor of the Portland Symphony Orchestra when he first came to Jacksonville. His teaching position at Portland State University gave him the freedom to spend summers in Southern Oregon, and he served as the festival's conductor for its first 25 seasons, leading 343 performances.

According to a release from the festival, Trudeau returned to guest conduct at Britt on occasion, most recently in 2002 during Britt's 40th anniversary "The Three Conductors" concert, where he shared the podium with former Britt conductor James DePreist and current music director and conductor Peter Bay.

"It takes a person with skill, determination, musical ability, foresight, persuasion and warmth to do what John did in Jacksonville," Bay said in the release. "All of us from the Britt Festival Orchestra owe him a great deal and will miss his smiling face."

Trudeau's most recent visit to the Britt hill was in August, when he returned to hear the orchestra and visit friends. He was slated to conduct the orchestra again in 2012 for Britt's 50th anniversary celebration.

Ron McUne, the Britt Festivals executive director for 20 years, likened Trudeau's achievement in Jacksonville to Angus Bowmer's work to create the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.

"He took a pretty daunting idea and turned it into a reality," McUne said.

Trudeau died Monday, but his death was not announced until Friday. A private funeral has been scheduled in Portland for this weekend, and a public memorial is being planned for a later date at Portland State University.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail