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Composer and electric guitarist Stephen Mackey is back at Yellow Barn as this season’s composer in residence.

The Arts

Welcoming an old friend

Yellow Barn hosts guitarist Steven Mackey for a second stint as composer-in-residence

PUTNEY—This week, an old friend is coming back to Yellow Barn.

Returning for his second summer as Composer-in-Residence, composer and electric guitarist Steven Mackey is spending this week working with Yellow Barn musicians on his compositions, performing in the Big Barn, and speaking to audiences about the works programmed for the week.

Mackey is regarded as one of the leading composers of his generation. His wide-ranging compositions include orchestral and chamber music as well as dance and opera. He regularly performs his own work, including three electric guitar concertos and numerous solo and chamber works. There are a dozen CDs devoted exclusively to Mackey’s music and many others that contain individual works.

He is currently Professor of Music and former chair of the Department of Music at Princeton University, where he has been a member of the faculty since 1985. His numerous honors include a Grammy Award in 2011 for Best Small Ensemble Performance of his composition Lonely Motel Music From Slide.

Mackey has also won several awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Stoeger Prize from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and a Kennedy Center Friedheim Award.

“Steven first joined us at Yellow Barn when he was our Composer in Residence fifteen years ago,” said Seth Knopp, Yellow Barn’s Artistic Director since 1999.

“Composer in Residence has been part of Yellow Barn almost since its inception,” says Catherine Stephen, Yellow Barn’s Executive Director. “Having the composer among the musicians as they are studying his or her works is a visceral experience for everyone involved. The synergy of the composer quite simply elevates things. And often composers are creating work while in residency here, which makes the experience even more exciting.”

Knopp says, “Steven Mackey’s first residency was quite wonderful, through which many deep friendships were formed.”

Musical relationships

Those friendships include one with Yellow Barn alumnus and member of the innovative percussion ensemble So Percussion, Jason Treuting.

“After meeting at Yellow Barn, Steven and Jason formed a close relationship musically,” Knopp says. “They now perform together regularly, and created together Orpheus Unsung, what Steven calls a wordless opera for electric guitar, from which he will perform an excerpt in a concert this Wednesday.”

Another fruitful relationship Mackey formed at Yellow Barn was with British violinist Anthony Marwood.

“Anthony immediately appreciated the sonic alchemy of electric guitar and violin,” Mackay remembers.

With Marwood, Mackey wrote Four Iconoclastic Episodes, a double-concerto for violin and electric guitar with string orchestra. Premiered by Mackey and Marwood in 2009, the piece will have its first performance at Yellow Barn in the concert on Thursday, July 26.

“Artistically, Steven’s first residency was very fruitful,” Knopp adds. “But that was only the beginning of his long friendship with Yellow Barn. Steven has returned to Yellow Barn several times. In 2008, he was involved in Yellow Barn’s Young Artist Program in which performers and composers ages 13-20 create and perform 12 new works each session.”

In 2014, Mackey was a Yellow Barn Artist in Residence.

“For this sort of residency, which is performance driven, we accept applications only from performers,” Knopp explains. “But often the performers collaborate during their residencies. So others may be part of the residency, such as actors, even scientists, and in Mackey’s case, composers.

“Of course, I don’t want to leave out that Steven is also a performer himself. He plays a beautiful electric guitar. His first musical passion was playing the electric guitar in rock bands based in northern California.”

Knopp realizes that Mackey’s established commitment has been very generous to Yellow Barn.

“I think he found it a very good fit for himself to explore his music with our chamber musicians in the special environment here in Southern Vermont,” Knopp says.

In addition to these events at Yellow Barn in Putney, Mackey also had been part of the recent tour last May of Music Haul, Yellow Barn’s self-contained traveling stage, where Steven performed Orpheus Unsung at Lincoln Center and other locations.

“I am very excited to return to Yellow Barn, and this week will include a broad retrospective of my work,” Mackey says.

Yellow Barn’s annual Composer Portrait will take place in the Big Barn at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, July 25. Audiences have the rare opportunity to spend an evening with Mackey as he discusses his work and his life as a musician and composer alongside five performances of his compositions.

The concert begins with Mackey’s Busted, performed by percussionist Eduardo Leandro (whose solo performances have become a much-anticipated hallmark of the festival). Also on the program are those excerpts from Orpheus Unsung, which will be performed by Mackey himself.

Thursday night’s concert in the Big Barn at 8 p.m. includes Mackey’s Four Iconoclastic Episodes. Mauricio Kagel’s Exotica precedes the Mackey, featuring instruments from Haiti and Cambodia. Also on the program are François Sarhan’s Situation No. 7 (Imagination), Wolfgang Rihm’s Das Rot, and Beethoven’s Op.135 String Quartet (with Juilliard String Quartet violist Roger Tapping).

’Wit, soul, and intelligence’

Friday night’s concert in the Big Barn at 8 p.m. honors the trustees of Yellow Barn with a program that features Mackey’s On All Fours, which was written soon after the composer’s father had a stroke that left him with aphasia — a neurological condition in which the afflicted cannot access their vocabulary but are fully cognizant of their failing.

Mackey writes, “[My father] was unable to walk, although he could crawl. On All Fours is dedicated to dogs, dolphins, and my father after his stroke: creatures with wit, soul, and intelligence, but with the simultaneously comic and frustrating inability to communicate easily or precisely.”

In Friday’s concert, complementing Mackey’s On All Fours will be Aphasia by Mark Applebaum, which deals with the same neurological condition, performed on this concert by percussionist Eduardo Leandro. Also on the program are Korngold’s Suite, Op.23, Gubaidulina’s Perception, and Bach’s “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” from the St. Matthew Passion.

The final concert of the week in the Big Barn at 8 p.m. begins with Mackey’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, followed by Fauré’s Piano Trio in D Minor, which the composer intended to write for clarinet, cello, and piano, but ended up publishing as a traditional piano trio. On this concert, the piece will be performed as Fauré originally intended.

The second half begins with Beethoven’s String Trio in C Minor, and the week concludes with Mackey’s improvisational Heavy Light, featuring Mackey himself on electric guitar.

Before the final concert of Mackey’s residency at Yellow Barn, Knopp will lead a conversation with the composer. Audiences who have already had a chance to hear Mackey speak about his work at the Composer Portrait will have the opportunity to delve deeper into his compositional process.

This pre-concert discussion will take place on Saturday, July 28, at 7 p.m., in the Putney Public Library. All of Yellow Barn’s pre-concert discussions are free of charge. (Seats for discussion attendees are reserved in the hall to allow for ample discussion leading up to the concert’s start time.)

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Originally published in The Commons issue #469 (Wednesday, July 25, 2018). This story appeared on page B1.

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