Celebrating a quarter century
Seth Knopp

Celebrating a quarter century

Seth Knopp, Yellow Barn’s artistic director for 25 years, will be honored at its annual scholarship fundraising gala

PUTNEY — On Sunday, July 31, Putney's Yellow Barn Music Festival honors Seth Knopp, its artistic director for 25 years, at its annual scholarship fundraising gala.

Founded by the late cellist, David Wells, and pianist, Janet Wells, Yellow Barn emerged in 1969 as an informal summer retreat for David's students at the Manhattan School of Music.

“When I came to Yellow Barn,” in the late 1990s, Knopp recalls, “I sat down with David and asked what his dreams for Yellow Barn were. That conversation more than anything else shaped my direction. This was not a place created because another summer festival was needed, nor for a specific kind of program. Or even for concerts to be given.”

That happened eventually at the urging of the Putney community, which was eager to share in Yellow Barn's creative energy and output.

Knopp explains.

“Yellow Barn was formed basically to give musicians an opportunity to continue their work in music over the summer,” with an appreciation of the invaluable rewards found in studying and sharing music in community. “That purity of purpose is what I found inspiring,” he adds.

When Knopp assumed the role of artistic director 25 years ago, he soon exercised his sense of how to best create an atmosphere where growth could take place and where inspiration could thrive.

“I found it much more fitting for my personality to, in a sense, be doing this to bring somebody else's dream further. David had planted it in healthy soil, and I've become ferociously protective of that. We have grown-a lot of great musicians want to come and work here.”

Indeed, through the summer festival, Yellow Barn Music Haul's traveling stage appearances, its ongoing series of artist residencies, and more, Yellow Barn's net is cast wide as it continues to flourish under Knopp's direction. But it's still the same spirited, wholesome Yellow Barn that delivers a wide range of extraordinary music in a little Vermont town.

“Yellow Barn is not about being different, not about being new or old in changing times,” Knopp said. “Really, what we're about is the music we play and that it communicates as much love and imagination as possible.”

Knopp is guardian of Yellow Barn's year-round concerts and events, including the Music Haul series; for the summer festival he coaches, teaches, and plays in ensembles; he hires and oversees festival faculty; and he auditions festival hopefuls around the world.

“Once I know who's coming and what they have or haven't played, I start programming in April and May,” he said.

In that process, Knopp says, “I don't search for balance; I search for dialogue among musical genres and contemporary music is part of that. Composers don't reject the past, they embrace it.”

For audiences, he says, he seeks to allow a way into a new piece: “people are often [...] excited by new works. It does no one any good to stand ground and resist them.”

A stunning range of compositions - well-known classics, rare-find classics, and a range of new works- is being offered this summer as it has been each summer since Yellow Barn's founding.

Of its distinctive nature, Knopp notes: “we were the first institution to offer artists residency programs for musicians - musicians eager to retreat and immerse in their music. [...] One thing about Yellow Barn is that we're all students of music somewhere on the continuum of learning.”

These participants, he notes, “are generally in their twenties and thirties, but among all involved-faculty and participants-the age is twenties to eighties. It's a very fluid situation. Faculty play with faculty all the time; they play for each other; they play with and for participants.”

Such is a manifestation of Yellow Barn's philosophy which, according to its website, “encourages discovery in the studio, classroom, and concert hall; explores the craft of musical interpretation; and illuminates our world through the unique experience of music.”

Soft-spoken with an artist's intensity, Knopp grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. His parents, both academics, traveled a lot for teaching positions - his father in mathematics; his mother in comparative literature. Wherever they went, though, the consideration was always that there be someone with whom Knopp could study piano.

He lived for some time in Chicago and then Philadelphia. On to Baltimore, “a highly underrated city,” Knopp says. He serves on the piano and chamber music faculties at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University.

A founding member of the highly acclaimed and innovative Peabody Trio, Knopp lives year-round in Putney with his wife, Catherine Stephan, Yellow Barn's Executive Director.

The July 31 gala is, as it is annually, a major fundraiser for Yellow Barn's scholarship program.

“Each year,” according to the event invitation, “40 young professional musicians, selected from over 500 applicants from across the United States and abroad, gather to live, study, and perform along with an internationally renowned faculty, creating a necessary musical haven. To make this possible, Yellow Barn depends on a full scholarship program. Our festival costs ten thousand dollars per participant, which we raise from the ground up every year. “

The scholarship program is part of the Yellow Barn mission.

“A vast majority of participants already have careers; some are still students,” Knapp said. “Those early years of a musician's life transitioning into a career of full-time playing can be financially trying. We want to be able to give resident participants the opportunity to leave financial worries and burdens behind and to make music."

Like other area festivals, Yellow Barn is a robust contributor not only to the area's arts scene, but also to its economic fabric. “Over the course of the summer,” Knopp explains, “we add 100 temporary residents to the area. That in Putney itself has quite an impact: our musicians are faithful customers at the local eateries and co-ops.”

The Yellow Barn draws audiences from local communities and far beyond. “People here not only enjoy the dialogue that goes on with the music in performances,” Knopp said, “but also the dialogue among people that music inspires lifelong friendships around Yellow Barn and its music.”

Knopp, recipient of the 1989 Naumburg Award, twice received the ASCAP/Chamber Music America Award for Adventurous Programming recalls, “I was a pretty young man when I came to Yellow Barn, and so were most of our faculty.”

One key thing he inherited from David Wells, he says, is that he feels “there's a basic ethic in what life is like at Yellow Barn, and this has helped people interact musically and (1)humanly: that carries a tradition, not one that's stagnated, but one that welcomes new, different personalities and outlooks. It's a real ensemble effort. There's a lot of love and respect here and I feel we're pulling in our own unique ways but we're pulling in the same direction."