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Rich washes of color and sound: Amelia Lukas at Siletz Bay Music Festival

The new-music flutist joins an extensive roster of musicians at four concerts on the coast.

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Flutist Amelia Lukas at Alberta Rose for "Natural Homeland: Honoring Ukraine" concert. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
Flutist Amelia Lukas at Alberta Rose for “Natural Homeland: Honoring Ukraine” concert. Photo by Joe Cantrell.

Siletz Bay Music Festival starts this week on the Oregon Coast. When we looked over the calendar, three names stood out: composer Ethan Gans-Morse, poet Tiziana DellaRovere, and flutist Amelia Lukas.

Gans-Morse and DellaRovere will be familiar to many ArtsWatch readers–they’ve been cooking up excellent and intriguing programs in Oregon (notably Ashland) for years, and you can catch up with them here, here, and here. This year, the festival closes with a piece the couple composed in 2018–repeat performances of new work are always, always, always appreciated. Doubly so when the work has not only social but also local relevance. Coast correspondent Lori Tobias discusses the work in her recent feature here:

When the Siletz Bay Music Festival closes this summer, it will do so on a note undeniably apt with the composition, How Can You Own the Sky? A Symphonic Poem Honoring Native Wisdom. The piece relates the story of the Native Americans who lived in the Rogue Valley and, in the 1860s, were forcibly marched more than 200 miles to the Coast (Siletz) Reservation.

“We did the piece here in the Rogue Valley and were very conscious that Siletz is where the story geographically ended,” said composer Ethan Gans-Morse. “We feel a deep connection between these two communities, the starting and ending points of Oregon’s Trail of Tears.”

Commissioned by the Rogue Valley Symphony to commemorate its 50th anniversary in 2018, the work is a collaboration among Gans-Morse, his wife, writer Tiziana DellaRovere, and singer, dancer, and drummer Brent Florendo. The Siletz Bay festival performance adds projected images during the musical interludes by Joe Cantrell, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and ArtsWatch contributor.

Following the 2018 performance of “How Can You Own the Sky?” in Grants Pass, tribal elder Agnes Emma Baker Pilgrim (center, in white dress) asked to be taken onstage, where she blessed the audience. She was joined by (from left) composer Ethan Gans-Morse, lyricist Tiziana DellaRovere, Native drummer and singer Brent Florendo, and conductor Martin Majkut of the Rogue Valley Symphony. Photo courtesy: Ethan Gans-Morse
Following the 2018 performance of “How Can You Own the Sky?” in Grants Pass, tribal elder Agnes Emma Baker Pilgrim (center, in white dress) asked to be taken onstage, where she blessed the audience. She was joined by (from left) composer Ethan Gans-Morse, lyricist Tiziana DellaRovere, Native drummer and singer Brent Florendo, and conductor Martin Majkut of the Rogue Valley Symphony. Photo courtesy: Ethan Gans-Morse

The other name should also be familiar to regular readers. Lukas performs regularly around Oregon with groups like Fear No Music and Chamber Music Northwest, and also collaborates on concerts like this April’s Natural Homeland: Honoring Ukraine multimedia show (read about that here and here) and two that happened this July: a showcase of Oregon composer Deena T. Grossman’s music at Leach Botanical Gardens and a melange of French, Japanese, and American music in the SoundsTruck NW mobile venue at the Portland Japanese Garden. On top of all that, she keeps up a lively public relations company for musicians, Aligned Artistry.

So when we saw “Amelia Lukas, flute” pop up on four different SBMF programs, we got curious. Sure enough, she’s playing her usual assortment of dashing contemporary music.

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On Sunday the 27th at Lincoln City Cultural Center, as part of the festival’s “Musical Tapas” concert, she’ll perform a piece every flutist knows by heart: Debussy’s Pan-tastic Syrinx. Lukas has been known to perform this one on alto and sometimes even bass flute; she hasn’t decided which one she’ll use on Sunday, but told ArtsWatch, “Maybe this time I’ll do it on piccolo!” Also on the program are Telemann (The Quartisimos); a few choice Gershwin tunes (violinist James Stern and pianist Michelle Bushkova, playing the the Heifetz arrangements); plus Ravel, Shostakovich, Dvořák, Lutosławski, Wieniawski, Strauss. You know, ¡tapas!

On Monday, also at Lincoln City Cultural Center, it’s “Sights and Sounds.” Lukas, Bushkova, and cellist Katherine Schultz perform George Crumb’s characteristically theatrical-philosophical Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale), alongside music for piano and strings by Elgar and Schumann. This one seems especially appropriate for a music festival on the Oregon coast.

Tuesday’s “Musical Feast” at Lincoln City Congregational Church features violinist Asi Matathias and pianist Mei-Ting Sun performing a Brahms violin sonata, and two with Lukas center stage. Stern, cellist Jason Duckles, and pianist Michelle Chow will join Lukas in premiering Michiru Oshima’s flute quartet For Blue Promise. Oshima is a Japanese composer better known for her video game and film work than for her classical work, and in her program notes has this to say about the piece:

I usually compose music for film, however, when I compose music for other occasions, I create music from what I feel about society at that time.

When I came to Siletz Bay Music Festival several years ago, I was impressed by the beauty of the sea while travelling by car from Portland, Oregon, and I imagined the world under the sea while watching the whales far away from the seashore.

The oceans where many lives can be found are much larger than the land where humans live. The sea creatures respect each other and live in order. On the other hand, humans have destroyed nature for their own greed, and I feel that it is time for us to think again about the importance of all creatures existing on Earth.

This music expresses the world under the sea. Let’s experience the underwater world together for a moment and imagine its beauty. More than anything else, I believe that imagination is the greatest human power.

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At the same concert, the Lukas-Schultz-Bushkova trio will perform the title track from the 2006 Belinda Reynolds album Cover.

Then, on Wednesday’s concert “Siletz Comes to Yaquina,” the Lukas run ends with another classic chestnut of flute literature, Henri Dutilleux’s Sonatine for Flute and Piano (with Chow). Also on that program are Saint-Saëns, Arensky, and the composer most closely associated with the Oregon coast: Ernest Bloch, the Man from Agate Beach.

We invited Lukas to discuss all of this with ArtsWatch–the pieces on these concerts, her practice as an artist, and the ear-opening “a-ha” moment we like hearing about from every musician. Her answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.

The A-Ha Moment

Little Orphan Annie. My grandparents would take me to musicals up at the North Shore Theater where I grew up in Massachusetts. We saw bunches of stuff, Pinocchio and Les Mis. But Annie was the one. Something about her spirit just really spoke to me, and the power of song, and the optimism. “The sun will come out tomorrow.” I watched that movie on repeat. I mean I just drove everybody nuts for years.

And when they took me to the ballet, and orchestra concerts and everything, I just kept pointing at “that beautiful, shiny silver instrument.” I kept pestering them that I wanted to play the flute, ever since I was like 4 years old. And finally at the age of 6, my parents acquiesced and we found a teacher, and that was that.

Curating a program

I’m really, really interested in thematic content, and greater meaning behind music. So whether we can tie into social themes, or themes that have to do with the place or the container that the concert is being presented in and the community in which it’s being presented–that really matters to me. I’m less inclined to present music for music’s sake.

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And it is really important that we’re bringing traditionally under-represented voices to the fore. I’m frequently prioritizing the music of female composers from different cultures. I’m really interested in cross-cultural content, how it informs different art forms and getting outside the box. There are pieces that serve as really great examples of a specific kind of music, but I think these days I tend to be a little more interested in the overlaps and the ways in which we’re breaking down some of those traditional forms.

When I have performances, I’m definitely practicing every day and playing through the music, but really also diving into the sound world around that music. What else was that composer writing? What other pieces were they exposed to and listening to at the time?

I’ll often listen to a recording, if it’s available, at the very initial stages of the process, if it’s a piece I’m unfamiliar with. But it’s rare these days that I go back to it, because I like to really lean into my own artistic voice as a performer, and I think that so often this is something that can be a little–I don’t want to say overlooked, but as musicians we’re taught to interpret music as perfectly and as appropriately to the composer’s writing as possible. And I do believe that we want to give as accurate an interpretation of the music as we can.

That said, when there are potential gray areas–and I think a lot of the best composers these days are writing with potential gray areas–how do you interpret something? Does this mean this or this? Is there a way that I can bring my own voice to this? And when I’m in rehearsals and working with other collaborative musicians, I love the fertile discussions that come up around interpretation and feeling and all of that.

Performing at Siletz Bay

I’ve been in conversations with Yaki Bergman for years, and he’s such an incredible person and musician. He creates this community around him that I think is really special and is very in touch with the reasons why we do music in the first place. All the love, all the positivity and the joy.

I’ve done some performing with the Portland Chamber Orchestra, which is also under his direction. And I think he was very taken with the solo show that I had done, Natural Homeland, specifically in its iteration to honor Ukraine. And we started having some conversations about whether any of that content might work out at Siletz. And it turns out that we decided to go in a really different direction. But I’m equally excited about this. There are pieces that are directly inspired by the ocean and the place.

The Dutilleux is one that I performed a bunch when I was younger, you know, in college. It’s a very classic standard piece, but it’s one of those pieces that can in a way get a little forgotten. And it’s so “misterioso,” and that was the aspect that I felt really fit into the coastal vibe. It has these rich washes of color and sound that reminded me of waves, undulating moments that are very meandering and very beautiful.

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The Crumb is so iconic, but it’s still rarely performed in concert, I think in some ways because it has these extra aspects in terms of the masks, the lighting, the amplification, the prepared piano. There are just a few things that make it a little bit extra. So you have to have just the right space, just the right kind of musicians who are open to doing that. This is one of those pieces that everyone needs to hear performed live at some point in their lives. You’re never gonna get the same experience from hearing it on a recording. And it’s so epic, you’re just going through the entire kind of history of time, all these different periods of lifeforms, from ancient microscopic worms and tiny little fish and then into larger animals, and you finally get to the voice of the whale and the majesty of it. You can’t experience it without being changed and leaving with a greater appreciation for life itself in this world that we live in.

And then Belinda Reynolds’ “Cover.” It’s really groove-based and it’s got such rhythmic impetus and pulse and a very natural feeling, while still being surprising at moments and having real interest. And again, very water-like, very fluid, which is great.

With Michiru’s piece, she’s pulling in elements from a lot of what we’ve talked about already. She has moments that are pulsing and moving forward, and then other spots in which there’s this opening and breaking that movement where it’s singing sound and really lush. Part of this came about because of my interest in Japanese music. Yaki knows that I am very interested in the different nuances of shakuhachi. The piece is called For Blue Promise and in parentheses it says “the unspoken promises and rules of the creatures under the sea.”

Maintaining balance in a passion-driven career

How do we nurture all sides of ourselves to be the best possible artist we can be, and the best version of ourselves? How do we give back to our community in a meaningful way while taking care at home? It may be a little unusual for a successful artist to have a career that is comprised of a few different components. Some people refer to it as a “dual career,” and to me that seems a little bit divisive. Because the work that I do in terms of my direct artistry and my performing in addition to my creative strategies, work that I do with artists and arts organizations, really inform each other.

This dual path or complementary path or however you want to refer to it has actually crystallized after years of doing lots of different things within the arts–performing, presenting, producing, promoting–working in all different aspects to make sure that there’s not just great art happening, but the models by which audiences can tap into that art are also shifting appropriately with the changes that we experience in our society. Working to modernize formats and create new kinds of concert experiences and ways of interacting, and having engagement around the arts, is something that I’m equally passionate about as I am the art itself.

What I want to emphasize is that this entrepreneurial aspect to artistic creation is something that is less and less rare these days, and it is totally possible to be very high-performing in multiple areas in these fields, because they inform each other and there is crossover. When someone is committed to excellent artistry, they’re often also very interested in finding excellent ways to express that artistry across platforms and bring it to audiences in ways that are engaging.

If I was doing flute all the time, it would deaden me as an artist. I need the left-brain right-brain stimulation by having something else going on that I’m deeply passionate about that’s related. That exercises my brain power in really different ways. I come to the music and I’m fresh and motivated and inspired.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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