Written by Cathy Carroll
Lying under the nine-foot Steinway in the middle of a meadow at sunset, they felt the music resonate in their bodies as never before. Wading through a creek in a fragrant pine forest, Rachmaninoff washed over them. At the top of Mount Bachelor, they peered hundreds of miles over alpine lakes and valleys, Ravel unraveling in their ears, heightening the beauty.
From Oregon’s dunes, waterfalls and wine country to its deserts, deepest lake and cathedral-like, river-carved canyon spires, pianist Hunter Noack’s 1,200-pound grand-piano-on-a-flatbed-trailer phenomenon, In a Landscape: Classical Music in the Wild, is transforming the classical music experience. Wireless headphones for each guest capture the music, freeing both Noack and his audience from concert halls as well as the requisite attire and pricing, both of which can pinch. A nonprofit with support from dozens of partner organizations, sponsors and foundations allows the artist to reach stunning, remote spots across the state and a few beyond. For nearly a third of the guests, it’s their first live classical music experience. Many are invited for free.
And, America’s taking notice. The project has gained national media attention, and in the first week of Noack’s latest release, In a Landscape, it reached the top of the genre’s Billboard chart, nudging out Yo-Yo Ma in the spot. What began as nine performances in 2016 has grown to sixty per year, and for the last seven years, Noack’s partner, Thomas Lauderdale, the Portland founder of the internationally acclaimed band Pink Martini, has been a significant creative influence.
In some ways, In a Landscape has been in the making since Noack was a boy, growing up in Sunriver, where his father was a golf pro and his mother, who ran the Sunriver Music Festival, first taught him how to play when he was 4 years old. He grew up hiking, fishing, kayaking and insisting on practicing five hours a day, getting up before dawn to be at the piano, in front of large windows that would bring the outdoors in. A scholarship to Interlochen Arts Academy, the nation’s premiere boarding school for young artists, at age 11 (he raised half of his tuition by recycling cans he collected at the Sunriver golf course with a bike buggy). Studying continued at San Francisco Conservatory, University of Southern California and Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Throughout, a love for theater pervaded his desire to create a new kind of music experience.
He learned from Lauderdale the history of the Works Progress Administration, its thousands of free concerts and plays presented in public lands. Growing up, he associated the Depression-era program with only trails, parks and structures such as Timberline Lodge.
“What inspired me was that with the government plan, the arts were part of it, and they were seen to be as important to the overall health of our society and a kind of rebooting of the economics,” said Noack, 33. “It brought the fine arts out of the spaces that can sometimes feel exclusive, and brought them into what [Frederick Law] Olmsted believed were our most democratic spaces, which are public parks and our public lands … not only presenting arts in approachable ways, but cultivating music appreciation and general arts appreciation, in addition to commissioning new works and employing artists.”
In a Landscape’s nonprofit model fosters that. “We work really hard to make concerts that feel like community events, especially when they’re in rural areas that don’t have the same access to performing arts,” he said. Year-round fundraising subsidizes $70 tickets, keeping them at about $35, while about $60,000 in tickets last year went for free to locals of the landscapes as well as to other groups such as People of Color Outdoors.
About the same time, Noack discovered the WPA, he had started reading John Muir. A favorite quote: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” After years of rehearsing and performing indoors, he longed to be outside. He envied flautists and other musicians who could easily throw their instrument in a backpack and perform in nature.
Devising a way to play outdoors has changed how Noack practices and performs. “What’s amazing about performing in a concert hall is that so much thought is put into creating the perfect space for this music—the acoustics, the way the seats are, the stage, there’s so much money and energy and tradition that facilitates this really beautiful celebration of music. So when we take all of that stuff away and not just take it away, but then replace it with an environment that’s ever changing, every moment is something entirely different—the light is changing, the scents are changing, the ambient sounds are changing all the time. It’s like another role in the play. It’s like another character in the performance experience. It’s almost like we’re having a conversation together, instead of it just being me.”
It feels more dynamic for Noack as well as the audience. Gazing at the sky as Noack plays, the raptors soaring into view overhead seem perfectly choreographed with the music. The breeze through the cottonwoods seemingly becomes the woodwind section. Leaves quake as would a timpani.
In introducing each piece, Noack, lithe and blonde, moves around the stage, sharing surprising tidbits about the composers and interesting aspects to listen for in the music. Before the adagio from Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G: “There’s this term in music called a hemiola, where you can hear two rhythms simultaneously. It’s not a Spanish disease … it’s a good piece to kind of walk slowly through the landscape. Or be still and watch something that’s slightly moving, like the leaves in the trees or some tall grasses or maybe the animals over there,” he said, gesturing in his signature red shirt to meandering wooly sheep.
The leap from concert hall to bucolic spaces shifted Noack’s approach to music, something Lauderdale saw evolve since they met. “He was very stiff at the piano and very reserved and very quiet, and I think that after seven years, he’s less quiet and he’s having more fun,” Lauderdale said in a phone call from Budapest while on tour with his band. “I think that when he was growing up, practicing the piano was all about being very careful and doing things the right way. I’ve encouraged him just to be looser and more casual.”
“And, he’s got this incredible project, in which you play sixty concerts a year. And most pianists, maybe play one or two concerts a year. If you’ve gone to school to study classical piano—most people never get to actually be a concert pianist,” said Lauderdale. “But I think that the way that he’s been able to do these concerts and play multiple times a week and be in the great outdoors, he’s really blossomed and unfolded.”
The setting is just part of what makes In a Landscape dramatically different from virtually any other concert. Instead of an audience facing forward at the performer, they’re moving around, their eyes meeting those of fellow headphone-wearing guests, which typically prompts a gentle smile from each.
“People are more attuned to what’s happening, because we’re doing it together,” said Noack. “We’re all reacting to the landscape together. It’s also very personal for people, because the sound is right over their ears. It’s kind of simultaneously very intimate, and there’s something communal that happens.”
That feeling takes on greater significance in rural areas, said Lori Noack, Hunter’s mother and executive director of In a Landscape. Most touring musicians go to a town, perform, go to their hotel and leave. For the Noacks and their small, dedicated staff and devoted volunteers, showing up locally, beyond the performance, is integral to what they do. In one town that has two restaurants, they’re sure to visit one each night.
“It’s not just the music, it’s not just that hour and a half, it’s creating relationships with people that’s very important,” said Lori Noack, who has been producing classical music performances and managing nonprofits for decades. “In this time that we’re living in when everybody is so divided, and here we come, out from Portland … to Fort Rock … there was this couple from Eugene, very liberal, and I heard them standing behind me talking to this guy who was a trapper in Lake County, and I got very nervous … And he said, ‘Well, yeah, you fancy people over the mountains, you make these rules and you don’t know what it’s like for us to wake up and have to carry out your rules and how they affect us. And they just had this conversation that went back and forth.”
That ethic hasn’t gone unnoticed. Pat Reser, co-founder of The Reser Family Foundation in Beaverton, which has supported In a Landscape, said, “I think the genius of Hunter is taking the music to the people as opposed to expecting them to come to him to receive it. We can talk in volumes about the value of music, what it does to the spirit, what it does for healing, what it does for happiness and fulfillment. And so these kinds of things that can support a healthier humanity are really important in terms of providing support, because it is forever. It crosses age, ethnicities, all kinds of barriers, and allows people to share something that they may not ever have an opportunity to share with those people again, or in any other circumstance. So I just think it’s incredible.”
For artist Kathy Deggendorfer, founder of The Roundhouse Foundation in Sisters, the Noacks’ work exemplifies the programs her organization supports—ones that inspire creativity and connect people with each other and their sense of place in Oregon’s rural communities.
“We love that In A Landscape presents a new lens for the audience to engage in the arts,” she said. “Hunter’s playing and desire to give insight into the music and lives of the composers encourages us all to do something really needed right now—listen more.”
Noack’s concept is emblematic of Oregon arts, known for trailblazing, as was Lauderdale’s Pink Martini, formed in 1994 as a little orchestra of sorts, drawing inspiration from music from around the world, crossing genres of classical, jazz and old-fashioned pop. Lauderdale wanted to bring political divides together with inclusive musical soundtracks for fundraisers for causes such as civil rights, affordable housing, cleaning up the Willamette River, funding for libraries, public broadcasting, education and parks.
Lauderdale, 52, has collaborated with dozens of artists ranging from Phyllis Diller, Carol Channing and Rita Moreno to Rufus Wainwright, filmmaker Gus Van Sant, Courtney Taylor-Taylor of The Dandy Warhols, The von Trapps and the original cast of Sesame Street.
“He never plays by any fad,” said Noack. “It’s what he cares about—the music and the heart and the beauty of not just the art, but of the person. He champions it because he sees something beautiful in it. And that, to me, is really refreshing and continues to be so grounding and inspiring to me, because it’s not what’s happening in our culture, it’s not what people with influence and power usually do.”
“I’ve seen him in environments with other leaders in the music industry, and I’m sort of shocked that on many, many occasions his voice has the most integrity because he challenges people to think about what’s the right thing to push the culture forward—to move us in a more beautiful direction,” Noack said.
Lauderdale brings that out in others, Noack said, including himself. “I feel like he encourages me to check in with my heart instead of checking in with what’s outside, like what I see on my phone or what’s trendy—I can’t even believe I’m saying that word—but I just feel like he inspires me to be honest, and that’s one of the most important things to me.”
That authenticity brought acclaim to Lauderdale, and now to Noack, said Kerry Tymchuk, executive director of the Oregon Historical Society and a fifth-generation Oregonian. “Being profiled on CBS News Sunday Morning, for culture aficionados, that’s the Holy Grail. How In a Landscape has grown shows that he’s really tapped a nerve. And just how unassuming he is, how down to earth. Both of them are—they don’t have big egos. Despite their massive success, they’re just so much fun to be around and great people and interested in what’s going on in Oregon.”