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Zachary Stephens

A performance of Bartok’s Two Pianos and Percussion at Yellow Barn’s “Big Barn” in Putney.

The Arts

Yellow Barn celebrates 50 years

Putney’s renowned chamber music hub looks back at its humble beginnings — and looks ahead as its influence spans the globe

PUTNEY—This summer, Yellow Barn celebrates five decades of extraordinary chamber music.

One of the world’s most highly regarded chamber music centers, this venerable institution remains deeply rooted in Vermont and will celebrate its 50th Anniversary at home in Putney.

Its annual festival runs from July 5 to Aug. 3, and includes 19 concerts over five weeks, plus master classes, pre-concert discussions, open rehearsals, and a summer gala.

Contemplating what Yellow Barn is planning for its 50th anniversary season, Artistic Director Seth Knopp eagerly points out that all seasons at this international center for chamber music should be special.

“I mean every year is an anniversary of some sort, whether it be our 48th, 45th or 33rd,” he explains wryly. “Do we short-shrift or cut corners on those anniversaries? Of course not.”

Knopp is being somewhat facetious, for however important those anniversaries were, there is no denying that reaching 50 is a momentous occasion for Yellow Barn.

“This is a natural point to reflect on our past and future,” says Catherine Stephan, executive director at Yellow Barn.

Roots in community

In 1969, cellist David Wells and pianist Janet Wells founded Yellow Barn as an informal summer retreat for David’s students at the Manhattan School of Music. Yellow Barn started out small enough so that a group of musicians could live, eat, and work together in the Wells’ house and its attached barn.

The Wells’ neighbors embraced this vibrant addition to their community, which was named by a participant for the color of the Wells’ farmhouse. They cooked meals for the musicians and organized concerts for the town. Over the ensuing decades, Yellow Barn evolved into one of the finest chamber music training and performance centers in the world.

And it has grown beyond Putney, with a national agenda and a growing international presence.

Yellow Barn draws young professional musicians from around the world. Under the leadership of Knopp, participants in Yellow Barn’s summer festival explore music spanning a wide range of eras and genres alongside faculty members who are among the most highly regarded performers and pedagogues of our time.

“Things will be a little unusual this year at Yellow Barn — which is usual around here,” Stephan says with a laugh. “Rather than program one big event, as other institutions do for their anniversaries, Seth has programmed moments of celebration and tributes woven throughout the 82 pieces that audiences will hear over the course of five weeks this summer. Some are listed in the programs for the concerts, but others will be surprises.”

For one thing, there will be a larger than usual faculty this year.

“We will have two composers in residence,” Stephan says. “Jörg Widmann from July 22 until July 26, and Brett Dean from July 28 until Aug. 3. Both beloved artists have had a long history with Yellow Barn.”

Array of works

Several works by Dean and Widmann populate their residency weeks, including an evening devoted to Widmann’s quartet cycle. Dean will be the focus of this year’s Composer Portrait, and Widmann will give a chamber music master class. In addition, both composers will perform works by themselves and others.

“We will also be joined by tenor Benjamin Butterfield and Stephan Stirling — a previous Yellow Barn musician in 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2009 — who plays French Horn,” continues Stephan. “Perhaps most exciting of all, we will be having a trumpeter for the first time at Yellow Barn. Caleb Hudson, the newest member of Canadian Brass, will be opening new repertoire for Yellow Barn. With him here, we will be able to explore some exciting chamber music with trumpet.”

Knopp also is thrilled with having Hudson at Yellow Barn this year.

“I have been trying to get someone from the Canadian Brass for a very long time, so this is quite an event for Yellow Barn,” he says.

The opening concert of this 2019 Season includes a special work written especially for the occasion of Yellow Barn’s 50th anniversary.

Christopher Theofanidis’ Speak Music is a commissioned work composed of the sounds generated by recorded reminiscences and birthday tributes given by musicians and audience members spanning Yellow Barn’s history.

The unusual piece combines words and music in interesting ways, as Theofanidis works with the thoughts and musings of many of the alumni of Yellow Barn.

“We collected responses from throughout the world,” Stephan says. “The process was fun. We set up a program so that responders would use their phone to make 90-second recordings of reminiscences. In an even simpler way, people could call Yellow Barn and leave a phone message.

“In this fashion we gathered dozens of responses from artists who had some connection with Yellow Barn over the years. All in all, we have over 50 people who will be incorporated into the work, and the number is still growing.”

’Speak Music’

Theofanidis was given audio files, which he could manipulate.

“Besides music, he would play with sounds people make, sometimes emphasizing a word or a phrase,” Stephan adds. “Because of this, we instructed callers to stress the name Yellow Barn as much as they could in their recordings.”

Speak Music is a particularly fitting piece to begin our 50th anniversary,” says Knopp.

The opening concert will also include a performance of Bach’s Chaconne from Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor in Knopp’s transcription for five violins.

“This work by Bach is a touchstone for so many violinists and musicians who consider it something of a Holy Grail,” Knopp says. “It seems impossible to be created by human hands. The piece shows how high the human spirit can soar with creativity.”

Other anniversary tributes throughout the season will include a performance on Aug. 2 of Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op 47.

“That piece was performed my first year at Yellow Barn,” Knopp says. “In fact, there was a short lived tradition that this work be done at the end of each season. In tribute to this idea, we are reviving it this year.”

In a concert July 20, Yellow Barn celebrates another 50th anniversary this year: the Apollo 11 moon landing, which the first Yellow Barn musicians watched together.

Knopp’s tribute to the first moon landing includes Birtwistle’s Crescent Moon over the Irrational, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, selections from Haydn and Galuppi’s Il Mondo Della Luna settings, Crumb’s Makrokosmos II, and Stephan Coxe’s interpretation of the Beatles’ Across the Universe.

“People at the inaugural season made note of the event, so the two are somewhat conjoined,” Knopp says. “I enjoyed putting the program together. The concert celebrates the moon in all its aspects, including our superstitions about the moon, with works all concerning the moon.

“The evening should be both fun and serious. We will perform excerpts from operas about the moon by Haydn and Galuppi. We’re also doing Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in English, sort of.

“Schoenberg thought it should be done in one’s native language, so we’re being true to his intent. Yet to keep its national flavor, we are toying with creating an English that has a German bent to it, you could call it Germ-lish, if you will.”

Back to the old barn

The annual Summer Gala and fundraiser on Aug. 3 this year will be held in the original Yellow Barn, which has not been used since 2002. Located on the property of the Wells family, Yellow Barn’s founders, this barn was where the early concerts of Yellow Barn were held until the new “Big Barn” was built in downtown Putney.

The process now is to incorporate the old barn into Yellow Barn’s company.

“David Wells died several years ago and his wife Janet died last year,” Stephan says. “With their passing, this property is coming to Yellow Barn.”

Yellow Barn plans to raise funds to develop both the barn and the Wells’ home for its use: the original Yellow Barn as a music venue, and the Wells’ home as housing for musicians.

The annual summer gala will include Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (Anthony Marwood, solo violin), Barbara Strozzi’s cantata Sino alla morte (Rachel Schutz, soprano) and Cage’s Sounds of Venice (percussionist Eduardo Leandro, “Venetian man”).

“John Cage has a special connection with us, since he was composer in residence at Yellow Barn in 1988,” adds Stephan. “We will be performing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in the old barn, which will be aperfect work for that space.”

Knopp says Vivaldi’s piece explores the passing of the seasons, making a nod to Yellow Barn’s past and future as it reaches 50.

Yellow Barn is not all about aural sensations. As a visual tribute to its 50th anniversary, Knopp and Stephan are collecting as much memorabilia of the history as they can find to put on display.

They are asking anyone who has any such material to contact them at 802-387-6637 or seth@yellowbarn.org.

Complete season programs, musician biographies, and box office information can be found online at www.yellowbarn.org/summer-season.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #516 (Wednesday, June 26, 2019). This story appeared on page B1.

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