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An enduring musical spirit

Local music community mourns David Wells, Yellow Barn founder

PUTNEY—David Wells, cellist and founder of Yellow Barn Music School and Festival, died at his home on Aug. 7.

He had celebrated his 85th birthday last month.

On Sunday, friends and family celebrated the life and legacy of Wells at an afternoon service of music and remembrances at Yellow Barn’s “Big Barn.”

A native of East Chicago, Ind., Wells studied at the Manhattan School of Music with cellists Diran Alexanian and Raya Garbousova. He performed as a soloist and chamber musician and was best known for his performances of the Bach Cello Suites for unaccompanied cello. As a soloist known for his intensely felt performances, he has been heard throughout the world playing a repertoire that ranged from the Baroque through the 20th century.

Winner of both the American Artists and Harold Bauer awards, Wells performed often in the United States and Europe as a recitalist, as well as a soloist with orchestras. He was a member of such illustrious chamber music groups as the Manhattan Trio, the Columbia Concert Trio, the Hartt String Quartet, and the Wells Duo.

He was also a beloved teacher. He had been a professor of cello and chamber music at the Manhattan School of Music, the New England Conservatory, and the Hartt School of Music. Wells and his wife, Janet, founded Yellow Barn in 1969.

Yellow Barn began as an informal summer retreat for Wells’ students at the Manhattan School of Music, with performances taking place in the barn attached to the Wells home in Putney.

Over the ensuing decades, Yellow Barn has evolved into one of the finest chamber music training and performance centers in the world, renowned for its unique philosophy and commitment to excellence.

As expressed at Yellow Barn’s website (www.yellowbarn.org), the Wells founded the music festival “to promote the importance of humility in recreating a musical score, and the craft and conviction needed to communicate it meaningfully, frame the interpreter’s quest. This results in a constant, lively exchange of ideas and an environment in which participants are unusually receptive and responsive to one another.”

Wells’ students have won top honors at many solo and chamber music competitions. Among his students are past and present members of the Chicago, Cleveland, and Philadelphia Orchestras, the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

Laurence Lesser, a New England Conservatory musician who taught at Yellow Barn this summer, paid tribute to Wells.

“David joined the NEC faculty in 1983, just as I became its president. He was a wonderful teacher, totally devoted to his students, and a very warm and caring person. A perfect colleague, David was especially gifted as a chamber player. I last visited with David a few months ago and found the same warm friend I had always known. It is sad that he is gone, but he left behind an important legacy of students and the wonderful festival he created.”

Seth Knopp, who succeeded Wells as Yellow Barn’s artistic director in 2002, said, “Those of us who, moved by an artist’s music, often harbor hope that their art is a reflection of the human being, can look to David as a shining example that this can be so. The memorial for David was a wonderful example of David inspiring the community around him. In this gathering near the old barn where David started the festival and school, people came together to pay tribute to David Wells as both as an artist and a man, someone who had been truly inspired and inspiring in the joy and wonder of music.”

Around 200 attended the memorial. The service had to be moved from the barn out on the lawn to accommodate the crowd, who also listened to recordings of Wells playing his favorite music, such as Bach’s C Major Suite and the Air on a G String performed with Janet Wells.

“David was involved with his neighbors to celebrate the best things in life,” says Knopp. “Acutely aware of issues that affect all of our lives, such as peace and the environment, he worked to help make the world a better place.

Knopp said that Wells’ spirit will endure at Yellow Barn.

“His direct legacy is his students who share the joy of his love of music and each other,” he said. “He remains a compass for people and organizations. Here at Yellow Barn, we will strive to remain faithful to David’s full dream as our organization also changes and grows from moment to moment.”

Knopp was at Wells’ side for his final moments, along with Wells’ family, friends, hospice caregivers, and Yellow Barn Executive Director Catherine Stephan, who had formerly been Wells’ student,

“His passing was one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever witnessed,” Knopp said. “David welcomed it, given the circumstances of his condition, as Wells had been suffering from severe Parkinson’s Disease for several years. Of course, he was sad to leave his wife, Janet, but it was a very tender death. I felt lucky to be there. It was very very beautiful.”

According to Knopp, Wells’ last wish was to express his gratitude to his students and colleagues, and especially to his wife, for the incredible happiness music had brought him.

In remembrance of Wells, donations can be made to the Yellow Barn Scholarship Fund, 63 Main St., Putney, VT 05346.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #165 (Wednesday, August 15, 2012).

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