Meet the Pianist Bringing Classical Music into the Oregon Wild

For his In a Landscape series, Hunter Noack performs Schubert and Ravel at some of this state's most breathtaking outdoor locations.

By Fiona McCann August 18, 2016

Hunter wearing older brother at rooster rock state park. photo  bobby bonaparte ilkzog

Editor’s Note: For 2017, Hunter Noack brings back his In a Landscape series, with performances running September 2–30 at locations across Oregon and southern Washington. Check out the full lineup.

When you listen to Schumann’s Forest Scenes, are you transported to a forest? Wouldn’t it help if you were already there? That’s the idea behind Portland pianist Hunter Noack’s new series of concerts, which bring classical music out into the wilds that inspired so much of it. 'In a Landscape' brings the music of Schubert, Debussy, Chopin, and Copeland into venues like the Columbia River Gorge’s Vista House, the Hoyt Arboretum, Hagg Lake, and Timberline Lodge.

It's not the first time Noack has brought music and the natural world together. Two years ago, he transformed a black box theater in London’s Barbican Center into a nighttime forest for a performance of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night)—complete with 50 trees brought in for the occasion. “With this project ['In a Landscape'], I wanted to try and do the opposite of that, and take the music into different environments,” explains the native Oregonian. “I love working in the theater, but being back in Oregon, I just love being outside. I wanted to figure out a way to bring the music out to these places that I love.”

Noack was also inspired by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Project Number One, which employed artists from all over the country in the '30s and '40s.

“I liked the zeitgeist of that, where the government during the Great Depression decided that employing artists was as important as employing craftsmen and construction workers," he says. "It was a stimulus package and the arts were part of that." His series too, can thank the government—it's funded by RACC and entry is free of charge, or donation-based. “If you don’t have any money, that shouldn’t be a barrier from having this experience. That’s kind of what is left from the WPA that I have held on to.”

He’s joined for the project (running August 20–September 1) by special guests, including Pink Martini-ites Thomas Lauderdale and China Forbes, while the musical program also incorporates texts from the likes of Walt Whitman and William Stafford. Added bonus? Attendees get a set of Sennheiser wireless headphones to wear, ensuring any acoustic loss from the outdoor settings is avoided. 

“Usually when any acoustic is played outside, especially classical, it kind of gets lost in the air because the acoustics aren’t meant for that,” says Noack. “That’s where the headphones come in. They give the audience concert hall acoustics—more, it’s like recording studio acoustics. You’re in this magnificent environment, and you can either sit in a seat and watch the musicians, or wander around and stare up at the trees, or if there’s a creek by you can put your toes in the water and smell the fresh air, and listen to the live music.

Noack says he’s inspired by the natural beauty of his home state, particularly after having lived in sprawling cities like Los Angeles and London. “I feel so lucky that in 30 minutes from where I live, I can be swimming in the Columbia River in the Gorge, with one of the most magnificent views, and there are hardly any people around,” he says.

And 'In a Landscape' may only be the beginning. “Since I started thinking about this, every new place I go, I think, how can I get a piano here? How cool would it be to listen to Bartók here? To listen to Mozart in the Painted Hills? We can listen to music anywhere on our iPhones and our iPods, but to be able to have a live concert experience in these magnificent places has not really been possible. Now with this technology, I just want to do that all the time.”

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