By Brian Wise
Visual artists have been so successful at capturing America’s national parks that some have served as valuable campaigners for wilderness conservation. Consider Albert Bierstadt’s huge landscape paintings of Yosemite or Ansel Adams’s famous photographs of Yellowstone. But composers have mostly refrained from portraying these natural wonders, perhaps hampered by music’s fundamentally abstract nature.
A few have tried, however, and more will do so in the coming months as the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary.
In the 20th-century, Ferde Grofé was classical music’s greatest national parks advocate. His Grand Canyon Suite – inspired by a camping trip to Grand Canyon National Park in 1916 – depicts a painted desert, a pounding storm, and the clip-clop of a mule descending to the canyon floor. Grofé later portrayed other national parks, composing a Death Valley Suite in 1949 and a Yellowstone Suite (1960).
In 1972, French composer Olivier Messiaen, a synesthete and lover of birdsong, made an eight-day visit to Utah’s Bryce Canyon and neighboring national parks, which yielded Des Canyons aux Étoiles … (From the Canyons to the Stars …), a gaudily pictorial, 12-movement symphonic poem. More recently, Nico Muhly, on a commission from the Utah Symphony, composed Control: Five Landscapes for Orchestra (2015), also inspired by Utah’s national parks (and featured on a new recording).
A category apart is Stephen Lias, an American composer who has held a series of National Park Service residencies, living and working in Rocky Mountain, Glacier, Denali and Glacier Bay National Parks, among others. His music will be performed in centennial concerts in Washington DC on 23 and 25 August.
There’s another way that culture and national parks intersect: at a number of music festivals that take place near or on park grounds.
Grand Teton music festival (Grand Teton national park, Yellowstone national park)
When it comes to Rocky Mountain festivals, Aspen, and to a lesser degree, Vail, get most of the attention. But this fest, located in Teton Village, Wyoming, puts you within an alphorn’s call of Grand Teton national park, with its magnificent 13,000ft peaks. It’s also an hour’s drive from Yellowstone, with its hot springs and grazing bison. Headliners include violinist Joshua Bell performing the Four Seasons of Vivaldi and Piazzolla, cellist Johannes Moser (Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations), violinist Nicola Benedetti (the Korngold Violin Concerto) and up-and-comer Simone Porter (Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto). While programming leans on the tried and tested, the rugged surroundings can pull you out of your comfort zone.
4 July - 20 August, $10-$55, gtmf.org