Hunter Noack had recently created his In a Landscape project when ArtsWatch first chronicled the Portland pianist’s headphone-enhanced alfresco classical piano program’s Portland-area performances in 2016. By the time we checked in again in 2019, Noack had realized the program’s original ambitions by slapping a Steinway on a trailer and touring the program to various Oregon and nearby Northwest venues. Listeners marveled at how the high-end wireless headphones could summon the acoustic of a concert hall — while allowing them freedom to roam and experience gorgeous natural settings.
Since then, Noack’s ambitious program has expanded its horizons. Over the past two years, he’s toted his piano beyond Oregon’s borders into California, Idaho, and beyond. This year’s schedule features around three dozen performances (they’re adding new ones throughout the summer, most of which sell out well in advance), including a pair this weekend (July 8-9) at Portland’s Rose Garden Amphitheater that still had tickets available at press time. Now in its eighth year, In a Landscape has grown from its scrappy indie origins into a bigger, better, more professional and wider-ranging classical music experience.
Noack remains surprised “at the level of intensity that people experience the music,” he says. “I think it has to do with being free to have whatever experience they want, to bring a picnic basket or a bottle of wine or climb a tree or take a nap, and because it’s so open ended, people are really able to relax into the place.”
We detailed IAL and Noack’s origins in those earlier stories, from his Central Oregon childhood that happily mixed classical music and outdoor excursions, through conservatory training, graduate study in California and London, relocating to Portland after meeting and eventually moving in with Pink Martini’s Thomas Lauderdale, collaborations with Oregon Ballet Theater, Salem Orchestra and Northwest Dance Project, debut CD release, and the early incarnations of In a Landscape.
Then came the plague, the cancellations, the interregnum that constrained even outdoor music gatherings for too long. Despite having to temporarily lay off his staff, thanks to the airy outdoor setting Noack was able to safely stage a handful of shows during the pandemic. “I was also able to do what I always wanted to do,” he says, “take the piano to campgrounds and play acoustic sets.”
Finally, despite grievous losses and deadly lies, vaccines arrived, science and sanity ultimately prevailed, summer has returned — and so has In a Landscape.
With its early success resulting in more financial support (IAL’s initial $6,500 seed grant has now blossomed into a million-dollar budget), the program has burgeoned, last year drawing more attendees — 16,000 — than the first six years combined. Word has spread, so Noack receives far more invitations to perform than he can accept, since the performance window is confined to late spring and summer months.
Many shows are sponsored by local supporters, and Noack’s team (including his mom Lori, who ran the Sunriver Music Festival for many years) works year-round rounding up donations and grants to enable the project to reach areas that can’t afford their own local sponsorships. Sometimes guests join Noack, from Native American flutists to Pink Martini musicians. Last year’s shows at California’s Jack London State Historic Park, for example, also featured live painters and a pair of local dancers.
“It was so beautiful,” recalls Susan St. Marie, Director of Program and Volunteer Management at California’s Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. “The weather was perfect. We have this great big open meadow area and people just brought their blankets, chairs, picnic baskets, bottle of wine. People wandered around. It was like a magical experience, and I don’t use that word often. You just lose yourself in the sound. I’m sure we introduced the park to people who’ve never been here before and will again this year. Everyone enjoyed it so much that I told [Noack] afterwards, ‘OK you’re coming back next year, right?'” He did.
Deepening connections, broadening horizons
With wireless tech improved and the piano rebuilt, Noack says the sound this year is much refined. He now has a staff of four in Portland and a six-member summer road crew, and also draws on volunteer support; he says one group came to 48 shows last year, using the project to explore various natural areas.
“It feels like I’m part of something, like we’re all in this together,” he says. “It’s my project, but it’s grown so much beyond me. We get to support a whole team of people who work on this all year round and travel around like a little circus. It still feels like a dream job.”
Noack has so far declined offers from the South and East Coast to take the show even farther afield. Instead of taking on “top of the world, flashy shows” at well-known worldwide venues, he prefers to continue IAL’s slow build.
“Developing relationships with partners and then going back year after year is kinda great because we’re not only building an audience, but also building relationships,” he explains. “So it becomes easier and easier every year, and as we figure out how to make it better and better, we have a foundation of partners and places we can kind of lean on. It’s a different path, but it feels a little more grounded.”
Besides, there’s plenty of Oregon left to reach. “The most meaningful part of this project would be a huge success if we just play small towns in Oregon forever.” Noack says. “There’s enough people in a town of 50 to play in a community park to make it worthwhile. We’re all about finding places in communities that have a story and mean something. That doesn’t necessarily mean the most glorious natural spot. It could be a brownfield site the community has rallied behind and over several years turned into a playground. It brings a whole other meaning to the music when people have a relationship with a place and then they have an experience with this different soundtrack.”
Still, in future Noack hopes to continue to broaden IAL’s horizons in various ways. “I’d love to collaborate with different ensembles and virtually take them on the road,” he muses. “That opens up more opportunities for playing compositions for site-specific locations, and being able to work with artists that can only be at one.”
Although he’d like to keep some live element as part of every program, Noack can imagine new ways to reach people who can’t attend in person, say for reasons of disability. “Another future version could be doing more projects that bring audiences to places where they’re not able to come using virtual reality,” he says. “Through technology, we could bring more people to that experience.”
No matter how IAL evolves, Noack maintains his motivation after eight years and thousands of miles, thanks to the enthusiastic response he’s constantly receiving from thousands of listeners in beautiful places where live classical music seldom appears. He sees social value in bridging Oregon’s urban-rural divide by bringing big-city classical music stans together with ranch and farm families in beautiful sonic and visual settings that all enjoy equally.
“What’s become a little crystallized for me in my mind is why I’m still interested in it,” he says. “A third of our audience has never been to a classical music concert before. Hearing the testimony of people that come to our performances, talking about their experience in nature and with this music, that’s what makes me want this project to live outside of me. I love classical music and I love being outdoors. I believe that spending time in nature makes us better people, and I also believe in the power of classical music. And something about putting those two things together makes for a really magical experience.”
You can catch In a Landscape this weekend at Portland’s Rose Garden Amphitheater, or one of the other upcoming shows listed here.