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Britt Orchestra takes on new challenges

Britt Orchestra kicks off its 2016 season with two days of outdoor concerts at Crater Lake National Park before it returns to Britt Pavilion in Jacksonville to present three weeks of classical music, newly commissioned pieces and pops.

The orchestra, conducted by Teddy Abrams, will perform the premiere of composer Michael Gordon's "Natural History" — commissioned by Britt Festivals — Friday and Saturday, July 29-30, at Picnic Hill near Rim Village at the park. Performances are set for 2 and 5 p.m. July 29 and 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. July 30. Individual musicians and small ensembles will be scattered around the park to perform between the orchestra's shows. Look for them at Watchman Overlook, Phantom Ship Overlook and Cloudcap Overlook. The shows are free to all park visitors — park entrance fees will apply.

Gordon's composition draws on the landscape and the lake for inspiration. The music is intended to connect the natural environment to the orchestra.

An endeavor of this size is new for the Britt Orchestra, though its concerts use the same concept every year on the Britt hill — just on a smaller scale.

"It's exciting," Abrams says. "Ultimately, we want audiences to see the orchestra play in the national forest and realize how special the organization is. If the orchestra can accomplish something dramatic on this scale, audiences can reimagine how special the orchestra is back home on the Britt hill. It's a spectacular institution that can bring world-class musicians together every year. Its concerts draw on a full repertoire, from the modern era going all the way back to composers from deep within our history and heritage."

Concerts at Britt Pavilion, 350 S. First St., Jacksonville, begin Aug. 5 with a premiere of Russian-American composer Lev Zhurbin's "Current," a piece commissioned by Britt Festivals in partnership with the Louisville Orchestra.

"Both orchestras will play the newly commissioned piece this year, but Britt is doing it first," Abrams says. "When we looked at doing a Russian-themed program for the season, I discovered that much of the contemporary work is written in a modernist, avant-garde style. I was looking for something that spoke more to the history of Russian music being populist — like Stravinsky's 'Petrushka' — a folk story that's told in music and ballet. Tchaikovsky's '1812 Overture' is an ultra-populist piece. Even Shostakovich, at his most modernist, tried to represent the voices of the people, their struggles and Soviet oppression."

New York City violinist and composer Zhurbin fit the bill for someone who is doing something similar to those classical composers, but from Russia and living today, Abrams says.

"His piece is dramatic and fascinating, and hearing a piece of music played for the first time is the high point of any concert."

Violinist Ray Chen fills out this program with a solo performance in Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1.

Abrams and the orchestra take on another big challenge Aug. 13 with Mahler's Symphony No. 2, or "Resurrection."  Similar to "Natural History," Mahler's piece calls for musicians to be spread out.

"The piece is its own entire world," Abrams says. "Giant, epic and enthralling in itself. Mahler was trying to create the sounds of human experience, nature, fate and spirituality that no composer ever attempted. He would take a group of horn players, ask them to play loudly and put them in the distance. It's as if you hear a distant shepherd's call or a military call.

"Another element in the piece is a little celebration band, like a klezmer band, that wanders into the scene a couple of blocks away. It's all coordinated. The first three movements are instrumental, the fourth movement opens with a mezzo-soprano and a soprano coming in one by one, and a full choir comes in with the fifth movement. It's one of the most magical entrances in all of orchestral music."

Soprano Celena Shafer and mezzo-soprano Lauren Ebewein sing in Mahler's fourth movement, and members of Rogue Valley Chorale and Southern Oregon Repertory Singers, directed by Paul French, make up the choir in the composer's fifth movement.

Abrams also is excited to work with concert pianists Jeremy Denk, performing Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1, and Yefim Bronfman, playing Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2.

"These are A-listers," Abrams says. "It's a really big deal for us to have these sought-after pianists. Bronfman is considered a virtuoso. If you look at his schedule, he's playing with every major orchestra on the planet. It's the same with Denk. He talks about music in his blog, which is really fun to follow. He's also recorded the Ives 'Concord' sonata, which is the best I've ever heard."

Denk performs Brahms' concerto Aug. 6 with the orchestra. Mozart's Symphony No. 25 and Hindemith's "Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber" fills out the program.

Bronfman plays Prokofiev's work for piano and orchestra Aug. 19 in a program that will open with composer Julia Wolfe's "Amber Waves of Grain." Wolfe, who is married to "Natural History" composer Gordon, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for her composition "Anthracite Fields," an oratorio for chorus and instruments.

Aaron Copland's Symphony No. 3 concludes the Aug. 19 program.

"If you think about it, how many American composers write symphony?" Abrams asks. "This is like the Great American Novel in music, and the last movement is based on the composer's signature 'Fanfare for the Common Man.' It's a powerful thing. It comes in full glory with brass and percussion at the end. It's moving and powerful."

On Aug. 6, look for Oregon Shakespeare Festival company members Kate Hurster, Jeremy Johnson, Michael Sharon and Britney Simpson in collaboration with Britt Orchestra to present "Shakespeare and Song," a program that marries songs from recent OSF musicals with Shakespeare-inspired works by composers Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, William Walton and others.

Symphony Pops returns Aug. 14 to Britt, featuring Oregon jazz singer Halie Loren.

"A wonderful jazz singer," Abrams says. "We've created some new orchestral parts just for this concert, so Loren will be performing songs from her 2015 album 'Butterfly Blue' with the orchestra."

This year, young musicians from Britt's Fellowship program will have the chance to learn from Britt Orchestra's musicians through the three-week season. One of the musicians will conduct a piece in the Symphony Pops program. Other fellowship members will play with the orchestra or teach master classes in the community.

The classical concert series will conclude Aug. 20 with a showcase of Gordon's Crater Lake commission "Natural Way," along with Mason Bates' "Anthology of Fantastic Zoology" and Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."

Bates, a San Francisco composer and composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center, performed with Britt Orchestra last year on a piece called "Mothership." A symphony composer and electronic dance DJ, Bates is known for his expansion of orchestral music to include electronic.

"I received a lot of positive feedback about that performance, because his music reflects the diversity of American music brilliantly," Abrams says. "So I wanted to do a bigger piece of his this year. 'Anthology of Fantastic Zoology' premiered last year with the Chicago Symphony, and Mason told me he always dreamed that "Anthology" could be paired with 'Pictures at an Exhibition.' Each is so descriptive."

Mussorgsky's piece was inspired by a visit to an art exhibition, and Bates' is a psychedelic bestiary teeming with strange creatures and wild sonic effects.

"I said, 'Let's do it,' " Abrams says. " 'Pictures' is a great way to close out a season. It's a dramatic use of the orchestra, and it has colorful, memorable melodies."

All concerts begin at 8 p.m., except Symphony Pops, which begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $47 for reserved seating, $32 for lawn seating, or $10 for lawn seating for students and children.

Tickets for Symphony Pops are $20 for reserved seating, $5 for lawn seating.

Tickets, program information, and adult and student flex packages are available online at brittfest.org or by calling 800-882-7488 or 541-773-6077.

Music Director and Conductor Teddy Abrams brings an exciting and challenging repertoire to Britt Orchestra's 2016 season. Photo by Josh Morell