Hunter Noack wants his audience to feel free to roam, which is pretty uncommon for a classical pianist. But then Noack performs in some beautiful and surprising places — from resorts and ranches to craters and forests.
On Friday, the 29-year-old Noack, who was raised in Sunriver and now lives in Portland, brings his “In a Landscape: Classical Music in the Wild” concert series back to the region. In a collaboration with the High Desert Museum, he and a 9-foot Steinway concert grand piano will visit Playa, an artists retreat on the dry lake bed at Summer Lake, located about two hours southeast of Bend.
In short order, Noack will visit Fossil on Tuesday, Suttle Lodge Aug. 15, Smith Rock Sept. 5, Sunriver Sept. 6 and Fort Rock Sept. 8, along with other performances around the state.
You’re invited to attend — and if you do, you’ll be encouraged to stand up and move about the landscape wearing headphones, provided for a fee. Depending upon the geography of the setting, Noack said, the headsets range about 100 yards in every direction. (A number of free tickets are also available.)
Several factors led Noack to conceive “In a Landscape,” he said. One of these was seeing a production of the opera “Invisible Cities” five years ago at Union Station in Los Angeles, California. Wireless headphones gave the audience “the freedom to follow whichever character in the opera they wanted to,” he said. “They had within their headphones a perfectly mixed live sound that combines all of the singers and the live orchestra.”
The same kinds of headphones enable “silent disco” dancers to writhe quietly into the night, but the opera “was the first time that I knew this kind of technology could be used for live, classical music,” he said. “I had thought it would be cool to just drive a piano to all of the places that I wanted to be. I grew up, of course, in Central Oregon, hunting, fishing and backpacking. Being outdoors was where I felt the most comfortable. … I’ve just always wanted to spend more time outside.”
While the technology makes it possible for audience members to roam if they want to, Noack also drew inspiration for the concert from an 80-year-old program when he conceived the project three years ago.
“When I moved from London back to Oregon, I became really interested in the Works Progress Administration,” he said, referring to the Depression-era public works program that put Americans back to work constructing buildings, roads and bridges. Noack said that what appealed to him specifically were “the federal music and federal theater projects, and the federal writers project. I liked that as part of the government stimulus package, the arts were considered as important to the health of society as roads and post offices. … They presented thousands of concerts that were free to the public, and they were presented in public parks.”
Noack is presenting the concerts in a variety of locations including city, county and state parks, but also private land, “whether that’s a private rancher, or farmer or forest management company,” he said. “I think having a bunch of different hosts keeps our audience diverse, because then we’re not seen as a particularly political organization with any kind of agenda. If we were playing just in land conservancies, we might distance ourselves from the ranchers and farmers.
“What I like about the project, and I think what draws a bunch of different people into it, is that the focus is on an appreciation of the land,” Noack continued. “That’s something that conservationists and ranchers and farmers can all get behind. Because everybody is connected to the land in some way.”
He’s especially looking forward to playing Smith Rock, and Sunriver, where he’s working with the Sunriver Music Festival, an organization his mother, Lori, once served as executive director.
“Having grown up there, and (performing) in the meadow, that one will be really great, because there will be a lot of familiar faces,” he said.
Noack adapts concert programs according to setting, and sometimes incorporates local culture. In Cottage Grove that might mean the reading of a poem by Opal Whitely, who lived there before moving to England, or if performing at the coast, including a piece by 20th century composer Ernest Bloch, an Oregon resident in his later years.
When Noack performed in the Alvord Desert last year, Burns flute player Kyle Ruggles joined him on the concert bill. And 2002 Miss America Katie Harman Ebner came out and sang when he appeared in Klamath Falls.
Moving the piano is no small task. “It’s the same piano that’s in Carnegie Hall and all the big halls,” he said. It would normally take a team of three professional movers to move one, he said, but a system of hydraulic lifts allows two nonprofessionals to do the heavy lifting. When being transported, the piano travels on its belly, “sandwiched between some high-quality foam, and it’s in a water-protected case,” he said. “We can go pretty much anywhere, and it has a smoother ride than it would in the back of a moving truck.”
Noack estimates about a third of his audience members have never before attended a classical music concert.
“I’m most surprised at how the music affects people that don’t typically listen to classical music,” he said. “I think because these places are already restorative and healing, and people are already comfortable going to a park, if they’re able to go for free or at very little cost, it’s removing a lot of the barriers that people would normally associate with connecting with the actual music — like having to sit still in a concert hall, and wear something and there’s this expectation you should know something about the music. We kind of take all of that way and just put people with the music in landscapes that they are comfortable with.”
He likes the fact that some listeners wander off instead of watching him — it allows his imagination to go a little more wild, he said. “If I am sort of in a space that’s conducive for my imagination, it makes me feel like other people, as they’re wandering around, must also be letting their imaginations breathe.”