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Britt orchestra offers a ‘special gift’ to music lovers this season

Composer Caroline Shaw and Britt Festival Orchestra Music Director and Conductor Teddy Abrams walk in the Jacksonville Woodlands behind the Britt Music & Art Festival. Jamie Lusch / Tempo

Sounds of the Britt Festival Orchestra transcend its typical concert venue this summer, transporting audiences into nature.

Two Pulitzer Prize-winning composers headline Britt’s orchestra season for six performances and an interactive experience in and around Jacksonville — all free to the public. The two musical “installations” epitomize Britt’s efforts to bring its orchestra into distinctive outdoor settings, emphasizing intersections between music and nature. At the core of Britt’s mission, these special summer events build on the orchestra’s 2016 Crater Lake Project.

“It’s a very unconventional season for us,” says Britt Music Director and Conductor Teddy Abrams. “It really is a special gift to the people of Southern Oregon.”

Giving back following last year’s catastrophic wildfires is a driving force behind Britt’s orchestra season, says Marketing Director Mike Gantenbein. And although the two special projects — “Soundwalk” and “Brush: Music in the Woodlands” — were conceived well before the coronavirus pandemic, they guaranteed musical events at Britt amid recent uncertainties around large-scale public gatherings, says Gantenbein.

“It definitely brought a different resonance and a different meaning to the project,” says composer Ellen Reid of the pandemic’s effects on her “Soundwalk,” which Britt hosts beginning July 1.

Using music to illuminate natural environments, “Soundwalk” is a public artwork activated by GPS. Since Reid’s recent visit to Southern Oregon, Jacksonville’s “Soundwalk” joins installations in New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and smaller cities in New York, California and Virginia. Britt, says Reid, was one of the project’s original co-commissioners.

“The project needs to stretch to fill all those different locations,” says Reid, who was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Music. “It always adds a really nice flavor to have a local orchestra.”

Britt’s orchestra musicians worked individually to play — and remotely record — her composition for editing into “one big ensemble,” says Reid. In addition to classical, music styles in “Soundwalk” include electronic, jazz and pop.

Reid traveled to Jacksonville earlier this month to install the piece, which audiences hear using a free app that can be downloaded on mobile devices. Acknowledging Jacksonville’s “layers of history,” Reid associated “Soundwalk” with places of interest around town, including its historical cemetery.

“It has a lot of entry points,” says Reid. “Depending on where you are, the music moves in different ways.

“The listener gets to be a creative force.”

Audiences also actively participate in “Brush: Music in the Woodlands” by choosing their routes for hiking about 2 miles of Jacksonville Woodlands trails adjacent to the Britt grounds. Musicians positioned at various points along the trails play individual segments of Caroline Shaw’s world premiere composition commissioned by Britt.

Shaw spent the past two years composing “Brush” since working with Britt as its 2019 Composer/Conductor Fellow. Awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music — the youngest recipient ever in that category at age 30 — Shaw says “Brush” is her first composition inspired by a specific location.

“It’s so unusual in every way,” she says. “You’re basically hearing a song or a piece of music in pieces.”

Written for a mix of strings, woodwinds and brass, “Brush” implies both a surprise encounter and painting as a metaphor for musical composition, with notes evoking brushstrokes, says Shaw. After touring the trail system, she identified nine sites suited to performers, including a string quartet, French horn trio, a clarinet soloist and a solo vocalist.

“I really think about what they would like to play,” says Shaw.

Some sounds will be audible up close, others heard far away, she says. Participants may walk for five minutes without hearing anything, other than nature’s own symphony. The suggested route with accompanying map, however, does encourage audiences to keep moving, rather than listening to musicians in one spot repeatedly play the same phrases.

“There’s no way to hear it all,” says Abrams. “There’s no recording that can capture it.”

The entire experience takes about an hour, concluding in the Britt Pavilion, where 14 orchestra members will play the entire composition. Shaw likens the style to chamber music, rather than a “grand design.”

Such projects inspire people to “think bigger” about Britt, says Abrams. These two, in particular, acknowledge the “key role” public lands have played over the past year as Americans turned to nature to cope with the pandemic.

“This is a celebration of that.” “Soundwalk” is available through Oct. 15. See ellenreidsoundwalk.com/download

Performances of “Brush” are planned for 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday through Monday, July 30 through Aug. 2. Additional performances from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. are planned for Saturday and Sunday, July 31 and Aug. 1. Although “Brush” is free, advance registration is required to assist traffic flow and minimize environmental impact. Register at brittfest.org.

For patrons who are unable to walk the Woodlands trails, Britt is offering a performance of “Brush” at the Britt Art & Musical Festival on Aug. 2. Patrons may sit in the bench seating or on the ADA pads and enjoy the full performance. The performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. Reservations are required at brittfest.org. Contact the Britt Box Office for additional assistance at 541-773-6077.