What: Central Oregon Symphony Spring Concert, featuring Malheur Symphony
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Monday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Bend High School, 230 NE Sixth St.
Cost: Free, but ticket required
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a nearly 188,000-acre area about 160 miles east of Bend, is getting some image rehab from local musicians.
The five-movement “Malheur Symphony,” by Bend composer Chris Thomas, makes its Bend debut during this weekend’s Spring Concert from Central Oregon Symphony. The concert opens with husband and wife guest artists Zachary Lenox, baritone, and Jocelyn Thomas, soprano, performing with the orchestra. They’ll sing solo works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (“Exsultate, jubilate”) and Gustav Mahler (“Songs of a Wayfarer”) and then duet on pieces from the farcical Gaetano Donizetti opera “Don Pasquale.”
The second half of the concert is devoted to the 45-minute “Malheur Symphony,” which emerges in the wake of the 2016 occupation of Malheur by armed protesters. Their goal, The Bulletin reported at the time, was to have the land “turned over to local authorities, free from federal oversight.”
However, the work emerges not as a political statement, said composer Chris Thomas, but as an ode to the breezes, birds and beauty that has defined the area for thousands of years.
On Feb. 1, 2016, the day Thomas and his wife, Brigitte Thomas, moved back to Bend, the siege was in its fifth week. The couple had lived in Bend in 2004 and ’05, when Brigitte did an externship as a speech pathologist. During that time, Chris Thomas, a cellist, played in Central Oregon Symphony, and then the two headed to Los Angeles for his career as a TV and film composer.
“For about 12 years, I just dreamed every day about coming back to Bend,” Thomas said, laughing. “And I’m like, ‘What would I give just to be able to do what I’m doing here, but live there and play with the symphony again and enjoy that place. Eventually, it worked out. … I’m really lucky with what happened with technology in my industry. It just changed the whole landscape for film composers.”
He still commutes when duty calls, but his work allows him to mostly compose at home. Though he didn’t rejoin Central Oregon Symphony right away, he reconnected with artistic director Michael Gesme.
Gesme, in turn, introduced Thomas to local biologist and bluegrass musician Jay Bowerman, who’d approached Gesme about finding someone to write a musical project related to Malheur.
“Jay came to me and said, ‘I got this idea. I’d like to commission a piece that celebrates this natural wonder that we have out here, and in some fashion promotes at least the extension of a hand of healing. At least we can all agree that it’s gorgeous,” Gesme said. “He’s like, ‘I want the music to be about the place and not the stuff, so that people could listen to something gorgeous and beautiful.’”
They knew some composers, but the more Bowerman described the nature-evoking sounds he desired to hear, the more Gesme believed Thomas might be the man for the job.
“Because that’s what he does,” Gesme said, referring to Thomas’ film and television composing, intended to capture mood and match with imagery.
The idea resonated with Thomas. The occupation may have ended, but it hadn’t left his mind. The country seemed to have a growing partisan divide at the start of 2016, he said, “and everyone seemed to have this morose sense about our society. And then right at that moment there’s this occupation going on, and this really wonderful place was suddenly just, like, the symbol of that divide.”
“I thought, wow, the saddest part about this to me is that everyone’s going to hear about this, and they’re not going to think about the 200,000 acres of plains and wetlands, or this incredible global migration hub for birds or the fact that the Paiute have been living there for 10,000 years,” Thomas said. “They’re just going to think about divisiveness, partisan rhetoric and extremism.”
Realizing they felt much the same way, Thomas and Bowerman arranged to visit the refuge and some of its stakeholders: Paiute tribe members, biologists, birders and others.
They took in the vistas and the sounds, with rangers and members of Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge playing an extremely helpful role in identifying the places they should visit and otherwise helping the project get off the ground, Thomas said.
“We had to separate each aspect of what we heard. With all of that together, we realized, almost simultaneously, there are five distinctive stories going on here,” he said.
On later trips to Malheur, Thomas recorded sounds of nature that are interwoven into and between movements, starting before the first.
His thinking: “I’m just going to start introducing — before the orchestra even plays — the sounds of bird life emerging in the place. I was capturing the sound of the wind and the grass out at Malheur. Eventually, the birds will migrate in, and the strings will create this cloud of texture. Woodwinds in the orchestra will freely start responding to birds they hear in the speaker system, and have this little back and forth.”
Later movements include the arrival of first people, a thunderstorm, and so forth. It does not comment on the occupation. Gesme said Thomas knew well the orchestra that would be playing the commissioned work — after all, Thomas plays in it. But Gesme said Thomas did not hold back. Thomas agrees.
“This is a very difficult piece,” he said. “I did not go lightly on them, which I did on purpose.”
“Malheur Symphony” made its world premiere when Central Oregon Symphony performed it in Burns on May 5.
“They really rose up to it, and in recent weeks just found a way to own the music and just dig in,” Thomas said. “It’s like they’re really beginning to hear what I was going for, and it showed. We still have some work to do to get it ready for the next round, but the speed at which they tightened it up was kind of impressive.”
Thomas will not be performing his own piece, at least not on cello. Instead, he’ll be working sound, since he knows best when the electronic elements will come into play.
As for any regional orchestras that would like to put “Malheur Symphony” on a future program, Gesme and company are all for it. If including the prerecorded sounds is impossible due to costs, venue or logistics, Gesme assures that the symphony also works perfectly well without them.
Thomas said he’s pretty good about putting pressure aside in his day to day work.
“You just have to finish it,” he said. “Your value is in how well you serve the picture, not necessarily how brilliantly your music is written — and deliver on time.”
But a commissioned concert piece such as “Malheur Symphony” is a different animal.
“The only pressure I was really feeling was to deliver something of value musically,” Thomas said. “Jay specifically gave me a mandate to make sure that the feel of the piece could promote healing and common ground in some way. I figured my way of doing that was just to tell the story of a place, and just celebrate the one thing we have in common, which is that it is wonderful and we all have the sense of awe and reverence of the outdoors when you stand in that vast place. … We can start a conversation there, in a small, little way.”