Chamber musician rocks Silver Creek: Mel Wildberger finds inspiration and relief in rocks and water

October 2012 Posted in Arts, Culture & History, People

By Brenna Wiegand

Mel Wildberger creates artwork using rocks in Silver Creek. Photo by Jim Kinghorn

Mel Wildberger creates artwork using rocks in Silver Creek.

Late July, and Mel Wildberger’s apartment was stifling.

“…I thought, ‘I’ve got to have a place to cool down other than McDonald’s,’ so I went down to the creek and built a tiny catch basin to create a place where I could at least get my feet and part of my legs into the water.”

Silver Creek’s cool water and saving breezes were invigorating and his efforts rewarding, so Wildberger kept going, scarcely aware he was stepping into a two-month artistic endeavor with jaw-dropping results of a decidedly fleeting nature.

“I just went for a bigger and bigger dam so I could immerse more of myself,” the Silverton man continued. “Then I started building up stones and large rocks along the banks to slow the erosion.

“It finally occurred to me that I could really put them anywhere that struck my fancy.”

As he joyfully toiled in Silver Creek, Wildberger enjoyed meeting the neighbors and their dogs. In addition to cooling off, he noticed that his body was becoming stronger – as long as his back behaved.

“I just turned 76 and so I need exercise and that was a really good way to do it,” he said. “Some of those boulders I had to move were pretty heavy; those that were too heavy to pick up I rolled.”

Above all, Wildberger is a chamber pianist who craves fellow musicians with whom to perform en ensemble.

His talent for music was evident early on and Wildberger spent eight years at Northwestern, DePaul and Cornell universities, studying composition, performance and ‘musicology’ – the history of music.

“I always have trouble finding people with whom to play chamber music – there’s no money in it,” Wildberger said. “Serious music in this country has been dying a very slow death for many years. At present I estimate its devotees, including musicians, to constitute less than 1 percent of the general population.”

For 25 years, Wildberger typeset music examples in college textbooks for publishers including W. W. Norton & Co. and university presses including Harvard, Indiana and the University of California.

“The great thing about music typesetting was that it was done by mail, and I was fortunate to be able to live in obscure places all over the country,” he said. “Everywhere I went, I looked for a little town that had some chamber music; I haven’t found one yet.”

Imagine his delight in a recent workshop at Mount Hood Community College.

“We played chamber music the entire afternoon,” he said. “I was euphoric, especially since the person who ran the workshop allowed me to decide what we played.”  It was considerably easier to find fellow chamber musicians while living in Germany from 1994 to 2000. Fluent in the language since his first year of college, Wildberger proofread for Schott, one of the largest music publishing houses in Europe, did research for his music collection and played chamber music whenever possible.

“I have a talent for sounds, as would be expected of a musician, so I’m able to mimic sounds very well,” he said. “My accent is so slight they usually think I’m Danish or Dutch because I don’t have an American accent in German.”

While there, Wildberger and his then-wife purchased a 22-year-old Blüthner concert grand piano and had it completely restored at the Blüthner factory in Leipzig.

Wildberger has always been active and loves touring Silverton’s hills and dales on his electric-assisted bicycle.

“In my younger days I used to do a lot more cycling; typically 60 miles a day,” he said, “I even remember one day I rode 125 miles.”

Sometimes he stops at the Gordon House to practice on his piano, shipped to the U.S. upon his return 12 years ago.

“It’s really an ensemble instrument that blends well with voice or other instruments,” said Wildberger, who placed the piano in the quasi-public venue to facilitate its proper use as a public performance instrument. “The acoustics in the Gordon House are ideal for chamber music – all the hard surfaces make for the excellent reverberation necessary for performance of serious music.”

Wildberger also holds one of the world’s largest privately held piano chamber music collections – several thousand printed scores and parts for piano, small groups of other instruments and solo voice.OK

Mel Wildberger moved 10 tons of rocks by hand to create environmental artwork.

Jim Kinghorn

Perhaps he was entranced all summer long by the music of Silver Creek even as he got tons of exercise moving an estimated 10 tons of rock by hand. The summer shallows responded accordingly, and, flanked by dreamy, lilting trees, his work of art combines nature’s primary elements with a man’s quest for beauty.

The best view is from the deck behind Water Street Spa at 401 N. Water St., where owner Betty Duer welcomes viewers.

“She feels I made a personal artwork for her,” he said. Duer sees the island’s spear or arrowhead shape, with its little well, and the V-shaped dam, as a complement to her shop’s Native American theme.

“When I started it, I would only work when the weather was really, really hot, but as the concept became clearer to me I became more serious about it,” he said. “For the last month or so I was out there almost every day and it grew like Topsy.”

Wildberger has since titled his work Well Isle-Vee Dam – pronounced with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

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