By Nancy Malitz
FISHTAIL, Mont. — Midway between Bozeman and Billings, you can turn off Interstate 90 and wend your way south through the rolling foothills of the rugged Beartooth mountain range near Yellowstone. Beartooth’s alpine plateaus, glacial lakes, and 12,000-foot peaks expose some of the oldest rock on the planet’s surface, and vast ranchlands, once the native habitat of the Crow tribe, stretch out below in all directions. It’s an immense vista, breathtaking and quiet; when weather threatens you can see and hear it coming for miles.
Arts philanthropists Cathy and Peter Halstead traveled the world in search of a remote landscape in which the combined works of nature and man could include large-scale contemporary sculptural installations and an integrated component of music. Cathy Halstead is an abstract painter in her own right; Peter a poet, photographer, and pianist. Among their chief inspirations were the Storm King Art Center, a 500-acre sculptural park in New York’s Hudson Valley, and the legendary acoustics of Snape Maltings Concert Hall on the site of an old barley malting plant in Suffolk, England, the headquarters of the Aldeburgh Festival founded by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears.
Thus was born Montana’s Tippet Rise Art Center, amassed from several contiguous working ranches totaling 11,500 acres, where cattle and sheep still graze. The inaugural series of densely packed summer weekend concerts runs through August 21, coordinated by pianist and National Public Radio’s “From the Top” host Christopher O’Riley, who is music director. The place will be open year round; summer season concerts are to be followed by a lighter schedule in colder months.
The Halsteads brought on Alban Bassuet as executive director; a multi-disciplinary designer and acoustician who is knowledgeable in performing arts, Bassuet was trained at IRCAM in Paris and worked at the London-based firm Arup, which did the original work on Snape Maltings. The bringing together of nature, sculpture, and music to the extent the Halsteads have envisioned it is rare in my experience and exciting on first encounter.
Enormous sculptures by Calder, Stephen Talasnik, Patrick Dougherty, and Mark Di Suvero are positioned in isolated settings throughout the landscape. Di Suvero’s Beethoven’s Quartet can be played upon with rubber mallets, and musicians will not be able to resist. Its ringing has a ceremonial splendor.
Three new works by the visionary Spanish collaborative Ensamble Studio were created by scooping cavernous holes in the land, filling the emptied space with concrete, and excavating the gigantic results. They stand like stone age sentinels, visible for miles.
When the weather cooperates, some performances are intended to occur outdoors, in and around these sculptures, in pursuit, as Peter Halstead put it, of those “aha” moments when the sound “suddenly expands into a universe that surrounds us, shelters, explains us.” An early concert involved dozens of musicians who surrounded Talasnik’s delicate wooden installation Pioneer to perform John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit, a massive outdoor percussion piece with drums, conch shells and sirens. Another involved cellist Matt Haimovitz performing Bach suites, preceded by “overtures” that living composers Du Yun, Vijay Iyer and Roberto Sierra had been invited to create, at one of the outdoor Ensamble Studio scooped-earth portals. Oblivious to the approach of a fast-moving thundercloud, Haimovitz made it nearly through three suites when somebody called a time out. (Next year the outdoor concerts may move to mornings, when the weather is generally quiet and the wind in repose.)
Music director O’Riley studied piano with Russell Sherman and so did Peter Halstead, who has been collecting iconic pianos for years. Apart from a few instruments intended to brave punishment in the out of doors, Tippet Rise boasts a dozen primo instruments, mostly Steinway D models, to be played by O’Riley and a dizzying array of keyboardists. They include the French pianist Lucas Debargue, Italian pianist Alessandro Deljavan doing the complete Chopin Études, MacArthur Fellow Stephen Hough, Tchaikovsky silver medalist George Li, and Russian virtuosos Nicolai Demidenko, Svetlana Smolina, Yevgeny Sudbin, and Konstantin Lifschitz, who will play Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Among the most talked-about pianos are Vladimir Horowitz’personal favorite (the CD-18, later owned by Eugene Istomin), and a gem from the 1880s dubbed the Seraphina, which O’Riley, relaxing between concerts, said everyone is in love with.
I heard three concerts inside the Olivier Barn, a charming space that does indeed resemble an old farm structure. The concert hall is lined in larch timber native to the American northwest, the rafters exposed to the top of a steeply sloped roof that contributed to a pleasant linger in the sound decay. The whole has very much that Snape Maltings look, with a cozy ambience and a light cinnamon glow. Designed to seat 75, capable of handling 150, its acoustics designed by Arup were bright and enveloping, rich but subtly differentiated. The floor is flat, with unfixed canvas chairs emitting the odd squeak, and minimal risers toward the back; Bassuet said more durable seating is planned.
The spirit of the music-making at Tippet Rise had that quintessential summer festival vibe – on the one hand, the relaxed reunion mode of old music pals kicking back, and on the other, the adrenalin rush of having to perform under unusual conditions, sometimes with strangers on short rehearsal, and the weather up to its usual tricks. There was all that and more. I heard Haimovitz and O’Riley in a run-through of sonatas by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff that they will be recording soon – the Rachmaninoff was a knockout, the others sometimes notes on a page. I also heard the fast-rising Dover Quartet, winners of the 2013 Banff International competition, perform Beethoven’s transcendent Opus 132 with an impressive, classically disciplined sheen.
Then the Dover was joined by Haimovitz for the Schubert String Quintet in C major and the dynamic became thrillingly different, with Haimovitz’ beefy vibrato and to-the-edge theatrical approach its galvanizing force. The performance may not have been entirely cohesive, more like a roller-coaster ride, but it was definitely exciting, and one can assume provocative in the best sense for the performers involved. A Messiaen program began with his Visions de l’amen, a rarely heard monster of a piece for two pianos that offered stretches of sublimity by O’Riley and Svetlana Smolina; on the second half was the Quartet for the End of Time, with Chicago Symphony clarinet John Bruce Yeh, O’Riley and Haimovitz doing devastatingly beautiful work throughout, and a young newcomer, violinist Caroline Goulding, emerging from tentativeness to come into her own in the final spotlight.
The audiences were a performer’s delight, open to even the wildest works, not predisposed toward Bach or Beethoven over Scriabin or Messiaen. In the mix were visual arts enthusiasts and visitors coming from and going to Yellowstone, not to mention Montanans. When Tippet Rise was under construction, the noise of trucks and the clouds of dust were temporarily destabilizing to the area, bringing pushback from some of the residents nearby, but locals now form a sizable portion of the audience at this point. The artists, often joined by Halstead, prefaced the concerts with authentic, jargon-free musical insights that sounded friendly and seemed spoken off-the-cuff, but were in reality textbook savvy.
August concerts will include pianists O’Riley and McDermott in two-piano works by Philip Glass, John Adams, Mozart, and Rachmaninoff (Aug. 20) and the U.S. debut of the young Debargue, the much-talked-about competitor in the recent International Tchaikovsky Competition who won fourth prize but was the favorite of many (Aug. 21). The concerts are sold out, although the grounds remain open to visitors who want to walk or take a shuttle throughout the ranchland and admire the sculptures, which offer a silent music all their own.
Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today, and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications.