Lungs of the City: Olmsted’s Parks in Music is a concert series of new music for flute, clarinet, horn, percussion, violin, viola, and cello, commemorating the 2022 bicentennial of Frederick Law Olmsted’s birth. This project is proud to be a Celebration Partner of Olmsted 200.

Olmsted famously envisioned Central Park as “the lungs of the city.” This unique concert program explores that sentiment through musical investigations of Olmsted’s living legacy of vital urban landscapes across the United States, transporting listeners on a journey from New England to the Pacific Northwest.

In this blog post, we’ll preview the program’s eight works—all World Premieres—by exploring their landscape inspirations and creative origins through the words of composers Oliver Caplan, Nell Shaw Cohen, Michael-Thomas Foumai, Libby Meyer, Ayumi Okada, Justin Ralls, Christina Rusnak, and Ryan Suleiman.

These accomplished and musically diverse artists, hailing from New York to Hawaiʻi, are all members of Landscape Music: an international network of composers and performers whose music engages with landscape, nature, and place. “Lungs of the City: Olmsted’s Parks in Music” was co-curated and co-commissioned by Landscape Music in partnership with American Wild Ensemble, a chamber ensemble celebrating the people, places, and stories that shape American history and culture through the commission and performance of new music; Juventas New Music Ensemble, a Boston-based contemporary chamber group with a special focus on emerging voices; and Michigan Technological University Department of Visual and Performing Arts, which presents concerts of new music with notable guest performers.

Juventas New Music Ensemble presents the first performance in this series on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at 8:00pm EDT at the Multicultural Arts Center in East Cambridge, MA. The event will also be available for free as a live broadcast on YouTube.

Several more concerts will be presented by collaborating ensembles in cities in the Northeast and Midwest U.S. during the Spring, Summer, and Fall of 2022. American Wild Ensemble will perform free site-specific outdoor performances in two of the Olmsted parks featured on the program: Fort Tryon Park, New York, NY, on May 27 at 6:30pm and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY, on May 28 at 12:00pm. Juventas New Music Ensemble will repeat the program at Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, MA, also the subject of a work on the concert, on Saturday, June 4, 2022 at 2:00 pm EDT. Michigan Technological University will present the program in Houghton, MI in October 2022 (date TBA), which will also be live-streamed online for free.

Watch Olmsted 200’s events calendar for updates with more information about these events and additional concert dates as they are announced.

Billings Lawn at Fort Tryon Park. Courtesy of Ayumi Okada.

Half of the “Lungs of the City” program focuses on iconic Frederick Law Olmsted and Olmsted Brothers parks in the Northeast, including Boston’s Emerald Necklace and Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, and New York City’s Central Park, Prospect Park, and Fort Tryon Park.

Seeking inspiration for his work Piece of Mind, Ryan Suleiman looked to Olmsted’s own home and creative studio, Fairsted, which is now the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site. “In crowded, noisy, stressful city-environments, [Olmsted] believed we all deserved a place to stop and take in nature,” Suleiman writes. This facet of Olmsted’s work prompted Suleiman to compose a work “about stillness, contemplation, the creative process, and above all, letting sounds and silences simply be themselves.”

Many of the composers on this program chose to focus on Olmsted parks close to home: places they’ve loved and lived with for many years. Composer Oliver Caplan writes: “When I first moved to Boston in 2004, the Emerald Necklace captured my imagination. It seemed almost a contradiction, to be in the heart of the city, yet able to walk for miles through wooded groves and along winding riverways. In Olmsted’s parks, I found peace, refuge and inspiration for my composing.” Caplan describes his work The Emerald Necklace as “a love letter to a dear old friend, a remembrance of myriad moments in urban nature, from misty mornings to spring blooms.”

In Breath of the Meadow, Heart of the Woodland, Nell Shaw Cohen offers a similarly personal response to New York City’s Prospect Park and Central Park. “The concept of parks as ‘lungs’ may have come from Olmsted’s work in public health during the Civil War,” Cohen notes, “Yet this idea feels strikingly poignant in our own time of pandemic and climate crisis, and has given inspiration and impetus to my music.” Meditating on this metaphor, Cohen’s work evokes the parks’ meadows as places “where the human body and the body of the landscape are connected through shared ‘breath’,” and the parks’ “winding woodland interiors” as a reflection of “the ‘heart’ of both visitor and landscape.”

The program’s expansive view of Olmsted’s legacy also encompasses parks designed by his sons’ firm, the Olmsted Brothers. Daily walks in Fort Tryon Park in New York City provided Ayumi Okada with the inspiration for her piece, Golden Hour Walk at Fort Tryon Park. “The immense beauty of the park designed by the Olmsted Brothers completely changed my perception of the busy city. Having daily access to the park gave me the comfort that I had been searching for for so long,” Okada writes. “Depicted in the piece is one of the most memorable walks I have taken in the park: a walk during the golden hour on a day after the winter solstice.”

Christina Rusnak in Forest Park. Courtesy of Christina Rusnak.

The next four works explore Olmsted parks in diverse locations across the country, traversing Belle Isle in Detroit, Olmsted Linear Park in Atlanta, and two Olmsted Brothers parks in the Pacific Northwest: Portland’s Forest Park and Seattle’s Cal Anderson Park.

Libby Meyer’s Beauty of the Fields zooms into a botanical, multisensory experience of Belle Isle, celebrating “flowers that attract and nourish bees, butterflies, birds and other wildlife as well as nourishing the spirit of visitors to the park.” The two movements of her work highlight asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed) and asclepias syriaca (common milkweed); plants which “Olmsted certainly would have valued as adding to the beauty and serenity of the park,” Meyer writes.

Heading south, Olmsted Gardens by Michael-Thomas Foumai offers a musical tour of four of the seven park segments of Atlanta’s Olmsted Linear Park. Structured into four movements, Foumai’s score employs musical style and instrumentation to evoke architectural features of the park, from Springdale’s “scenic gateway…where visitors encounter a green knoll and a mature stand of oaks,” to Deepdene’s “wooded tract with a stream winding through its 22 acres.”

In the Pacific Northwest, Christina Rusnak reflects on the multifaceted past and present of Portland’s Forest Park through her work The Forest and the Architect. Rusnak “sought to convey the forest’s inherent and contrasting elements – the sounds of the tiniest members of the forest’s inhabitants; the majesty of its towering trees; John Olmsted’s voice within the pages of the 1904 plan; trepidation as ‘progress’ undermined the vision; the rebirth of the plan, and the joy of experiencing the park today as envisioned over a century ago.”

Finally, Olmsted 200: Theme and Variations by Justin Ralls commemorates Seattle’s first Olmsted park, Lincoln Park (later renamed Cal Anderson Park), which “each generation redefines…for new needs and values.” Ralls recalls: “During the historic protests after the murder of George Floyd, the park became the epicenter of nightly clashes between protestors and police, as well as hub for mutual aid and organizing.” Ralls’ score presents “a democratic musical space where the ensemble is free to create their own variations and ending, symbolic of how Olmsted’s vision is bound to remain, yet change in perpetual theme and variation.”

For a deeper dive into each of these eight unique works, check out Landscape Music’s blog to learn more about these eight composers and their inspirations, and click here watch interviews with the composers to learn more.

Mark your calendar for upcoming performances of “Lungs of the City: Olmsted’s Parks in Music,” with more to be announced soon:

Juventas New Music Ensemble
Saturday, March 26, 2022 at 8:00 pm EDT
Multicultural Arts Center
41 Second Street, East Cambridge, MA
In-Person & Live YouTube Broadcast
Get Tickets or Tune in for Free

American Wild Ensemble
Friday, May 27, 2022 at 6:30pm EDT
Fort Tryon Park, location TBA, New York NY

American Wild Ensemble
Saturday, May 28, 2022 at 12:00pm EDT
Prospect Park Audubon Center, Brooklyn, NY

Juventas New Music Ensemble
Saturday, June 4, 2022 at 2:00 pm EDT
Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, Brookline, MA

Michigan Technological University Department of Visual and Performing Arts
October 2022 — Date & time TBA
Michigan Technological University, Houghton, MI
In-Person & Live Online Broadcast