PUTNEY — The Yellow Barn Summer Festival distinguishes itself as an international chamber music hub that, 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.”
A participant's journey begins well before the festival opens. “Four weeks before their arrival, participants receive their assigned repertoire and are notified when each work will be performed and rehearsals will begin,” the festival organizers write at yellowbarn.org/philosophy. “Participants are expected [...] to commit to performance - a vitally important part of the development of musicians and their relationship to the music they play. Performance is not regarded as the ultimate goal but as part of a unified process of interpretation and communication, exploration and discovery.”
True to form, musicians have gathered in Putney from the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia for Yellow Barn's 54th season to present an eclectic range of old and new works through Aug. 5.
Performed by all participants - faculty and students commingling - the season features more than 40 composers showcasing the eclecticism for which Yellow Barn is lauded, ranging from 16th century's John Taverner to nearly 30 21st-century composers with both big and lesser-known names from each century in between - Frescobaldi, Purcell, Mozart, Brahms, Haydn, Britten, Janáček, Bartók, Elgar, Webern, Cage, Milhaud, and Ives, among them.
About his approach to crafting a lineup, Seth Knopp, now in his 26th year as artistic director, says the pieces that have come to be part of the summer festival show relationships among different periods and styles all chosen with a “pretty subjective ear.”
Music, asserts Knopp, does not exist solely to please: it builds synergy and enhances relationships among makers and listeners; at the same time, he says, “music can address ills society presents.”
Of this year's fare, he adds, “there's a Mozartian thread that goes through the season rearing its head at unexpected times.”
He paused, and then added, “I'd rather not say how.”
Summer gala: a program of musical, cultural exploration
Yellow Barn's 2023 summer gala to support its ample fellowship program features a collection of spirituals arranged by Stephen Andrew Taylor and Harriet: Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, a chamber opera by Hilda Paredes.
With a libretto based on poems by Mayra Santos-Febres and dialogues by Lex Bohlmeijer, this U.S. premiere features Claron McFadden, soprano; Melissa Wimbish, soprano; Nico Couck, guitar; SoYoung Choi, violin; Eduardo Leandro, percussion; and Monica Gil Giraldo, electronics.
“Hilda's music has depth and complexity,” Knopp says, calling it “music that benefits from real exploration” and not surface treatment.
“Her music reflects both her inner ear and the topics about which she writes,” he continues. “She's passionate about her own heritage, the language of that, the culture of her background as she draws on the literature of Mexico.”
Paredes is also “extremely interested in the inner workings and mystery of music,” Knopp notes, citing both the playfulness and the seriousness of her compositions.
“Harriet is a portrait of the African-American freedom fighter and former slave Harriet Tubman,” said Paredes in a 2018 interview with Dutch music reviewer Thea Derks, when the opera had its world premiere in Amsterdam.
“I find much inspiration in the rich cultural life of my native Mexico,” Paredes said. “I often work together with Mexican poets and artists, but I also follow other musical traditions. In terms of rhythm and structure, I am inspired by the music of North India.
“However, I avoid quoting or imitating traditional music - except when the subject asks for it, as in the case of Harriet. I like to put poetry to music and address psychological, political, gender and humanitarian issues in my operas.”
“It's a wonderful, powerful piece that people should hear,” says Knopp. Tubman's is a “complex story in a complex history to which Parades brings a unique perspective and sensitivity.”
The production involves theatrical elements such as lighting and scenic video which, notes festival's executive director, Catherine Stephan, “won't be a first for YB.” The production ensemble, she reports, “will do anything to make this [premiere] possible at Yellow Barn.”
“It's very fulfilling to be among such passionate creators,” she says.
New faculty come to Vermont
There are several new faculty at Yellow Barn this summer - all from overseas, Knopp notes.
They include Maria Włoszczowska, violinist from Poland; Daniel Bates, oboist from the United Kingdom; Guy Ben Ziony, viola, Germany; Lilli Maijala, viola, Finland; Alasdair Beatson, pianist, Scotland; and Nico Couck, guitarist, Belgium.
They join a host of regulars - among them, Natasha Brofsky, Stephen Coxe, Gilbert Kalish, Lucy Shelton, and many others who have returned summer after summer to the place that's been called by violinist Anthony Marwood, a Yellow Barn musician since 2000, “an artistic center of gravity.”