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Yellow Barn Opens Wide Its Doors


Seth Knopp

Yellow is the color of the sun, daisies, corn. Yellow equates with hope, happiness, lucidity. It signifies energy, optimism, enlightenment — and remembrance. There’s a yellow barn in Putney, Vermont that’s home to a summer chamber music school and festival. Putney has proven fertile ground for apple orchards and progressive thinking since the 1840s: witness the Bible Communist movement, Putney School’s animal husbandry approach to college prep, and Landmark College’s unique niche for the learning disabled. Yellow Barn, an egalitarian community of students and professionals gathered to mine the rich heritage of chamber works from Baroque to Brooklyn, fits right in with Putney’s Yankee grit and edgy determination. Chugging steadfastly towards 50 since its founding as an artists’ retreat by NEC cellist David Wells in 1969, Yellow Barn ‘just growed’ from the Wells’ farmhouse summer jams into an ideally intimate environment for creative music and contemporary expression.

First, the people: Seth Knopp, artistic director since 1998, is a pianist and educator at Peabody Institute and founder of The Peabody Trio. Knopp wrote in a recent YB manifesto:

Yellow Barn concerts reflect a wide range of compositional voices … and the rich variety of instrumentation required by this repertoire opens musicians to the greater possibilities of their own instruments. Expanding the range of musical language that we play and hear stimulates the imagination and frees the interpreter from the constraints and weight of tradition. Working with living composers also informs the musician’s interpretation of venerable works of the chamber music literature. The programming and assigning of repertoire takes into consideration requests by participants and faculty while addressing imbalances in each participant’s prior experience. Participants are not only exposed to a wide variety of music, but have varying lengths of time in which to prepare each work. The experience of preparing for a performance in one week is quite different from having the luxury of living with a piece for three or four weeks. Both ends of this spectrum provide invaluable experience for performers.

Catherine Stephan became executive director in 2009, moving from that role with BMOP (Gil Rose’s Boston Modern Orchestra Project); she combines her love of music (as a Wells cello student at NEC) with skills in music and money management and a passion for hospice care to connect people through music. Emblematic of the dedicated outreach is YB’s Music Haul, a hands-on inroad to barnstorm Manhattan: last May they packed a custom U-Haul with bright youngs a-bristle with oven-fresh repertoire, unfolding their tailgate on street corners and playgrounds with pop-up shows. “Our mission was to catch people off-guard,” says Stephan, “to relish the magic of listening without preparation or expectation.” Yellow Barn faculty featured for the Summer ’17 opening weekend were world-renowned pianists Peter Frankl and Gilbert Kalish, and cellist Bonnie Hampton.

Then, the space: knotty yellow pine, wood-doweled, high-ceilinged, rustic-chic. It’s both intimate and spacious: oblong orchestra (for 125 patrons), long steep balcony (for the 50+ students/faculty typically attending), stage-right loge (6). Handsome and practical: dry, resonant acoustics for strings, low stage, barn-door wings for the smooth, silent movement of timpani, harp, Steinway grands, gongs.

Finally, the music: Yellow Barn’s ethos is mirrored in the DIY, locavore, laissez-faire, back-to-the-soil laid-back mindset of modern Vermont: free-range, antique vs. contemporary. Knopp juxtaposes moderns with classics, weighing in favor of new instruments (eg, marimba, accordion), simple music, and multimedia presentations. While he wisely caters to patrons steeped in Germanic classics (I’d estimate about 40%, far lower than most other series), he also selects repertoire widely from living composers, including women, to wit, my review here.

Down home dining right down the road: Putney Diner’s foot-long dogs and herby mac & cheese; The Gleanery’s garlic-scape vichysoisse, mint-pea agnolotti, and grilled shrimp atop arugula pesto pappardelle; Hickory Ridge Inn’s fruit ‘n’ flower salads, cranberry scones, and kale omelets; Curtis’ BBQ — savory vinegar-based Carolina-style — directly across Route 5 from Yellow Barn, within earshot of I-91.

Nearby day amusements: eavesdropping on a hilarious undress rehearsal of Great River Theater Festival’s bumpkins-in-the-rough Midsummer Night’s Dream over The Gleanery’s wine beakers on Putney Green; gallery walking on Brattleboro’s scenic Main Street; a visit to the riverside and railside BMAC (birch pastels by Wolf Kahn); hunting Green Herons and Twelve-spotted Skimmers along Sand Hill Road’s wet-marsh; walking under covered bridges in Guilford, Williamsburg, and the 280-foot whopper in West Dummerston—wear your swimsuit for a cool dip in the West River.

Looking forward: Guest composer, clarinetist Jorg Widmann (Berlin, Juilliard) returns (from 2016) on July 25-29. Yellow Barn runs through August 5. Go! Putney’s nearer than you think: our odometer logged just 99 miles from Belmont.

A link to the brochure is here.

Fred Bouchard, lifelong music journalist for Downbeat Magazine, The New York City Jazz Record and other publications, has until recently contributed to Massachusetts Beverage Business and Fodor’s Boston. Now retired from teaching music journalism at Berklee College of Music, he pursues interests in writing on travel, nature and wine.

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