New Music Ensemble performs at national parks

Sarah Dowell warming up before a performance at Badlands National Park. Photo by John Jansen.
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Sarah Dowell warming up before a performance at Badlands National Park. Photo by John Jansen.
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Fourteen days, 3,741 miles, 10 states, three minivans and four national parks.

This was the whirlwind trip taken by Grand Valley's award-winning New Music Ensemble June 29-July 12 when they performed custom compositions at some of the most famous national parks in the U.S.

The tour was made possible through the "Imagine Your Parks" grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Parks Service in celebration of the NPS's 100th anniversary.

Through the grant, the ensemble commissioned eight composers to write original compositions inspired by Yellowstone, Badlands, Grand Teton and Wind Cave national parks. The New Music Ensemble then toured the country performing these compositions in each of the parks. There was also an additional performance at Billings Public Library, located in Billings, Montana.

"Music has historically found inspiration in the natural beauty of the Earth and this was no exception," said Karsten Wimbush, a music education major who plays saxophone in the ensemble. "Experiencing the parks in person brought an entirely new experience to the music we performed as an ensemble."

Reese Rehkopf, a junior and music performance major, plays piano in the New Music Ensemble. He said the tour was a unique and engaging opportunity that was a "kaleidoscope of new experiences and stunning landscapes."

"The touring atmosphere and lifestyle on a two-week scale was informative to say the least," Rehkopf said. "We were able to instill an interest in contemporary classical music into quite an impressive number of people for whom we played at the parks. There were very few people who came to the concerts knowing exactly what 'new music' really is, and we were able to introduce original and some premiere pieces to them."

Despite challenges with instruments and electronic equipment not cooperating with the elements associated with outdoor venues, Bill Ryan, New Music Ensemble director, said the tour was a success.

"The students were able to maintain their high level of performance over a two-week period, which resulted in engaged and entertained audiences for every performance," said Ryan.

Denise Finnegan, a senior and music performance major who plays clarinet in the ensemble, said a highlight of the tour was connecting people with music by modern composers.

"We brought smiles to the faces of so many people and gave them a chance to stop their busy lives for a second to listen to some truly beautiful music," Finnegan said. "We also exposed people who would never think to explore music by living composers to new music, and we were able to play for many people who probably would not normally set foot in a concert hall."

As a musician, Wimbush said he is always looking for ways to broaden his experience in connecting with audiences, and this tour provided an opportunity to do that.

"Touring is a professional, real-world opportunity that tests my ability to adapt to multiple performance environments," Wimbush said. "Playing outdoors during different types of weather, performing for audiences of all ages and backgrounds, and maintaining the energy needed to work together with the ensemble through the entire process are all things I've now become accustomed to."

Wimbush added that their performance at Badlands National Park was his favorite.

"Our outdoor venue in the Badlands was very unique, as the clay formations at the venue make a natural amphitheater that the audience could explore while enjoying our music inspired by those very structures," Wimbush said.

The New Music Ensemble promotes contemporary classical chamber music, with a special focus on music of the past 20 years. The ensemble has released three critically acclaimed recordings, which have appeared on “best release lists” by The New York Times, Washington Post, LA Weekly and Time Out Chicago. The group has performed at the Bang On a Can Marathon in New York City, the College Music Society National Conference in Atlanta and at Carnegie Hall.

For more information about the New Music Ensemble, visit www.newmusicensemble.org.