Courtesy photo

Yellow Barn hosts American premiere of ‘Harriet’

‘Harriet: Scenes from the Life of Harriet Tubman’ is cornerstone of the work of Composer in Residence Hilda Paredes

PUTNEY — Week four at Yellow Barn's 54th Summer Festival continues with a series of concerts and events that highlight the work of Composer in Residence Hilda Paredes, including Yellow Barn's annual Composer Portrait, which gives audiences the opportunity to enter a conversation with the composer and the musicians performing her work.

The cornerstone of Paredes's residency, and the subject of her composer portrait, is the American premiere of her award-winning chamber opera Harriet: Scenes from the Life of Harriet Tubman.

The libretto for Harriet is based on poetry by Mayra Santos-Febres and dialogues by Lex Bohlmeijer.

"After being invited by Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México to write a new opera, I asked my friend [soprano] Claron McFadden if she would like to feature in this project, and she immediately introduced me to Harriet Tubman. A six-year journey began then, discovering the extraordinary life and personality of Harriet Tubman," said Paredes. "I always say and still think that if she had lived in the 20th century, she would have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize."

McFadden will reprise the role of Harriet at Yellow Barn in a free performance on Monday, July 31.

Leading up to Harriet, audiences will have a number of opportunities to experience Paredes' work, including 11 additional American Premieres on the Big Barn stage.

Paredes is one of the foremost Mexican composers of her generation. Currently based in London, she has won numerous awards including the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rockefeller Fund for Culture.

Although she collaborates frequently with Mexican artists, organizers say, "her sources of musical inspiration are without limits. Her instrumentation is imaginative and varied; she incorporates into her work everything from solo cello to electronics, percussion to spoken word."

In keeping with Yellow Barn's programming philosophy, Artistic Director Seth Knopp has programmed works that speak to Paredes's music, including Beethoven's Op.1 No.1 piano trio (with pianist Alasdair Beatson) and the An Die Ferne Geliebte song cycle (with Knopp and baritone William Sharp).

"Paredes and Beethoven make good partners," Knopp said. "The piano trio speaks to Paredes's playful and youthful side, as heard in her 'Códice de advinanzas,' (Codex of riddles) based on Mayan poems for children."

Beethoven's "An Die Ferne Geliebte" is an antidote to the first half of its program, which includes Paredes's "Juegos prohibidos."

Paredes said, "I wrote 'Juegos prohibidos' in response to a request to write a work that would make a reference to the political or social issues in Mexico or the Mexican community in the U.S. So I chose to make a reference to the children held in detention centers at the border, often held without their parents, and how their childhood is destroyed. The way I approached this is by quoting fragments of two well-known Latin American children's tunes at critical moments within the musical discourse."

Of works such as "Juegos prohibidos," Knopp said, "Hilda has the rare gift of placing something wholly in front of us, so that we can truly see it, rather than providing a direct comment of her own."

Antonin Dvořák is another of Paredes' influences, as heard in his Piano Quartet in D major. Like Dvořák, Paredes has tremendous respect for her culture and the culture of others.

Mayan culture is one of her strongest influences, and throughout the week, she herself will be performing Mayan texts in her "Codice de advinanzas." Her "Rainy Days for two toy pianos," another example of her serious playfulness, is her exploration of the sound of gamelan.

On the penultimate concert of Paredes's residency, Knopp has programmed her "Zuhuy Zak" (New Fire), inspired by the fires built by the Toltec people every 52 years to ward off the end of the world and to mark the beginning of a new time cycle, and paired it with two mammoth undertakings: Jonathan Harvey's "Death of Light/Light of Death" and Mozart's "Kreutzer" violin sonata (with violinist Anthony Marwood).

Concerts are generally two and a half hours in length, including intermission. All events take place in the 70-seat Big Barn on Main Street in Putney. Tickets can be reserved and purchased at, or by calling 802-387-6637. In addition to the July 31 performance of Paredes's opera on Harriet Tubman, Thursday night concerts at Yellow Barn are free and open to the public, thanks to the generous support of a group of Putney residents in memory of Eva Mondon.

This The Arts item was submitted to The Commons.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates