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Music on the hill

When music lover Sam McKinney stumbled across Jacksonville in August of 1962, the town’s frontier vibe knocked his socks off. And because he loved classical music as much as historic buildings, he was struck by a vision of the one-time frontier mining town — even if it was a bit down at the heels — hosting a summer music festival.

After all, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was going great guns in nearby Ashland. And Jacksonville was only about five hours from Portland and a little farther from San Francisco.

Sometimes a getting a big new idea off the ground seems next to impossible. This one was the other kind. From the first, things just fell into place.

The next night McKinney was banging on the Portland door of his pal John Trudeau with his brainstorm. They threw sleeping bags in the car and headed south. In his memoir, “Touches of Sweet Harmony” (2006), Trudeau wrote that when the two hit Jacksonville it was as if one of the nine daughters of Zeus took them under her wing, and they drove straight to the hillside where pioneer Peter Britt’s house once stood.

There were magnificent trees and that view over the Bear Creek Valley. And the acoustics. McKinney stood at the top of the hill, and Trudeau walked down to where the stage now stands. They could carry on a conversation without yelling.

“It was as close to perfection as one could ever find … ” Trudeau would later write.

And so it was that the two set about selling the idea of a summer music festival and enlisting the support of officials and opinion leaders — a task Trudeau would later remember for the ease with which they got the green light.

A board was formed, work started on the hillside (the Britt house had burned in 1960), and the recruiting of an orchestra began, complete with a housing committee to find volunteers to put up visiting musicians — a practice that continues.

“You have to describe him (Trudeau) as a visionary,” says Jerry Evans, who has run the Jacksonville Inn for many years.

Musicians treated the festival as a busman’s holiday, as it was the first outdoor summer music festival in the Northwest. Trudeau left the Portland Symphony Orchestra, where he was principal trombonist, and took the director’s baton.

An early decision was to adopt the repertory concept of programming that had worked so well for OSF. Visitors could “stay three days, hear three programs.”

A plywood stage was built on a real foundation, big enough for a 40-piece orchestra, a 35-voice choir and a grand piano. A canvas roof was stretched over cables strung from telephone poles, and 75-watt lightbulbs were hung inside ordinary No. 10 tin cans.

Britt’s first concert kicked off Aug. 11, 1963, with a fanfare by former Medford resident Ernie Hood, played by musicians who started up the hill and strolled to the stage. The concert, which offered compositions by Mozart, Peter Rennin and Handel/Harty, began at 4 p.m. The temperature was 103. After that, Trudeau started the music at 8 p.m.

The first two-week season featured music by Bach, Brahms, Haydn, Purcel, Rossini and other composers. A season ticket good for any four performances cost $6. The second season’s program ran 28 pages with photos, a history of Peter Britt and an essay on the arts by President John F. Kennedy.

One night in Britt’s sixth season, when the orchestra was playing Wagner’s intimate “Siegfried Idyll,” the heavens opened and a huge pocket of rainwater began a downward bulge in the canvas roof. When the seam burst and the cold cascade poured down, Trudeau said that sounds emanated from those horns that would never be heard again.

Another time a skunk came onstage during a performance, and audience members began moving up the hill. Trudeau turned to them.

“Thank God he doesn’t write our reviews,” he said.

Evans says from the first Trudeau had little trouble enlisting community leaders such as the Carpenter Foundation’s Jane Carpenter.

“He was talented,” Evans says. “But he also had great support.”

One night in 1972, the orchestra hit a music break, and at the moment of silence, one of the hillside’s outhouse doors slammed, and the hillside erupted in laughter.

In 1978, a permanent pavilion was built, and in time the festival spread over four months and presented top artists not only in classical music but pop, folk, jazz, bluegrass, rock, country and dance. Britt also commenced educational programs.

By 1979 the orchestra boasted more than 80 musicians, some coming from Los Angeles, Seattle and New York. Attendance surpassed 15,000, and Mark Nelson became Britt’s first professional manager. The Oregon Symphony’s James DePreist took the conductor’s baton from Trudeau in 1988. He was followed by the Austin Symphony Orchestra’s Peter Bay in 1993. Young, up-and-coming Teddy Abrams took over in 2014.

Although the classical season remained the festival’s heart, Britt soon found that with popular music both the season and the crowds grew. The festival’s first jazz concert was the Dave Brubeck Quartet in August of 1979 (tickets were $10), and a Mail Tribune reviewer pronounced the experiment “a rousing success.” In 1980, presenters Steve Sachs and David Maslow brought in Count Basie’s Band.

In 1980 David Shaw joined as general manager. By 1987, the festival was presenting shows like “Pump Boys and Dinettes” and acts such as the Paul Winter Consort, Alex De Grassi, Pat Metheny, Mel Torme and Diane Schuur.

Britt was soon booking the likes of Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte and other big names. Later, as the recording industry tanked with the rise of the Internet and recording artists took to touring as never before, Britt would welcome Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Judy Collins, Bruce Hornsby, Willie Nelson, Mickey Hart, Dr. John, Kenny Loggins, Ringo Starr, Michael Franti and many more.

And it all started with a couple Portland guys with a big idea.

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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Pianist Ingrid Fliter opened the 2008 Britt Classical Festival with music by Chopin, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Mail Tribune file photo
Britt Orchestra conductor Teddy Abrams. Photo by Josh Morrell