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EcoTones brings music inspired by nature to a Powder Valley trail

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Travis Hartman
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Cellist and composer Jody Redhage Ferber is founder and director of the new EcoTones concert series.

A few years ago, musician Jody Redhage Ferber heard a word she couldn’t get out of her head. The word was “ecotones,” and while it might sound musical, it’s actually an ecological reference: It describes the place where two biological communities intersect — “a forest edge and a meadow,” Ferber explained, “or a stream and a stream bank.”

Ecotones’ diversity often leads to particularly rich habitats. And that intrigued Ferber. “I thought, ‘Well, how can I spin that into something musical?’”

This weekend, she’ll reveal the results of that spinning, as Kirkwood’s Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center will play host to her new concert series, EcoTones. It features small groups of professional musicians playing in — and inspired by — the 1.5-mile Hickory Trail. For two reservations-only performances each this Saturday and Sunday, they’ll share pieces informed by the wildlife that inhabits the 112-acre oak-hickory forest.

For Ferber, the joy in EcoTones lies in playing with the idea of what happens when humans intersect with nature. Birds sing — and the musicians mimic their song. Frogs croak, and the musicians find music in their chorus. It’s an intensely collaborative process, one that required far more of its performers than simply reading the sheet music.

Listen to Jody Redhage Ferber on St. Louis on the Air

“My initial phone calls to all of the musicians started with, ‘Hi, I have a really unusual request,’” Ferber recalled on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “‘This is not your usual gig. Can you hear me out?’ I think all of my phone calls started like that, and knowing full well that maybe this wouldn't be for everybody.”

But many of the area’s best musicians happily signed on, and Ferber was eventually able to enlist 15. They’ll play in small combos on six stages set up throughout the trail, each with its own musical theme. There’s also a grand piano at the trailhead pavilion for anyone who might walk by, not just the people who’ve reserved a spot at the concerts.

Those reservations are full, but Ferber notes that as people drop off, they’re pulling from a waiting list. And if you miss this iteration, don’t despair: Ferber is already planning the second EcoTones iteration, set for Emmenegger Nature Park this September.

Emmenegger is the perfect place for Ferber to continue her vision of the musicians building on the sounds all around them. The park is just a few miles away in Kirkwood, but it backs up to the Meramec River. And so, Ferber said: “We're going to have a theme of water and water instruments. There's also an amazing bridge there.”

“There's been great joy in designing this absolute linkage to the nature right there on site,” she added.

Ferber said she has two goals for the EcoTones concept. The first is to encourage people to “open their senses” and “be aware in a way that they maybe don't usually take time for.” The second is a matter of grassroots audience development.

“I wanted to make a project that would be really fun and engaging and playful for all ages,” she said. “And so maybe when those youngsters come out, it might be their first time seeing a flute or a clarinet or a bassoon. It's this first exposure to these live acoustic instruments — which is so magical. And they're going to maybe be able to listen to those in a different way than they would if they were inside a concert hall.”

Related Event
What: EcoTones
When: May 14-15
Where: Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center, 11715 Cragwold Road, Kirkwood, MO 63122

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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