A graceful doyenne seated in the open-air courtyard tries on shoes; beside her a large placard reads: “What can you do?” A svelte barfly props herself at the bar, pours herself jumbo snifters of añejo rum, swigs, mumbles, belches into a hand mike. A nerd in red frockcoat on a bench feverishly plays Chinese checkers in a three-way solitaire. A little chap in black, whizzing back and forth among the gathering patrons, gets double-takes.
What in blazes is going on here at Yellow Barn’s 49th season opener?
Just a bit of drollery from Seth Knopp, artistic director of this blithe, beautiful summer festival in Putney Vermont, barely 100 miles from Boston. John Cage is the culprit responsible for the outdoor prelude’s mimed sketches, all ‘solos for voice’ from his Song Books (1970). The actresses turn out to be faculty and student sopranos: Lucy Shelton, who took the stage later with more deadpan Cage bemusements and a resounding aria, and Melanie Henley Heyn (Abrahamsville Pennsylvania, USC, Konservatorium Vienna). On Saturday they delivered, respectively, compelling performances of Ravel’s Chansons madécasses and Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer.
Much of what I wrote last year about YB’s delightful venue and environs, its dedicated directors, ebullient all-scholarship student musicians, and lofty objectives, applies still. Indeed, many of the student and faculty performers happily returned, and it was a comfort to recognize musicians who’d made positive impressions in 2017. Yellow Barn nurtures a cozy community, to be sure, but never a complacent one. Knopp and colleagues are ever adventurous in mining new repertory, reviving neglected composers, mingling students fresh and seasoned, while fostering the sacred and gentle yet provocative interactions among teacher, student, and audience.
Modernity and tradition play hand in hand effortlessly. Handel’s Concerto Grosso in D major Op. 6 no. 5 summoned onstage a third (13 of 40) of YB’s string-strong troops. Under the confident bow of concertmaster Zenas Hsu (San Jose, NEC), magnified the evening’s tone as serene and cheerful, measured and majestic. Cage rematerialized as string quartet, shape-note-ish Harmony 35 (1976) tantalizingly juxtaposed with his mentee Morton Feldman’s Structures (1951), miniatures of plainsong piety and microscopic mischief (an ant colony hoedown?).
To these ears an endearing aspect of YB’s programming is presenting pieces of ‘immense integrity’ by living composers. Anna Thorvaldsdottir (Icelandic, 41) writes with cool calm and flashes of geothermic fire. Shades of Silence (2013) summoned to the Big Barn stage yet another string trio, with faculty pianist Gilbert Kalish atypically hammering and plucking. Its dramatic expanses reflect stillness and consonance, its sustained tones interrupted by mallets on piano strings evoking ice rumbles and col legno and ponticello effects echoing Feldman’s insect scratches. (Kalish, at 82 a 20-year YB stalwart, relishes Ives and George Crumb as he does the Three Bs; he volubly defends modernists who, like Cage, “fight to refind silence in our lives”.)
After a theatrics-free intermission at YB’s open-air ice-cream-and-coffee bar, endearing suites of miniatures by overlooked Eastern European masters held sway. Marisa Gupta (Paris Conservatoire de Musique, Geneva) and Knopp played six intimate four-hand piano Játékok “Games” by György Kurtág (b1926) interleaved with two of his Bach chorale transcriptions. Critic Alex Ross finds the Hungarian’s oeuvre uncategorizable: “compressed but not dense, lyrical but not sweet, dark but not dismal, quiet but not calm”. Gupta and Knopp played these moody, quixotic studies and homages with crosshanded trust and affection. An homage to Stravinsky tolled churchbells, dissolving languidly.
George Enescu’s Impressions d’enfance, Op.28 (1940)—fluttering, fluid recollections of childhood—brought to the stage the well-loved faculty couple violinist Donald Weilerstein and pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein. Their reading was emotionally roiling, dreamily romantic, microscopically etched (twittering goldfinch, rustling brook, cranky cricket, moaning wind) yet sharp-eyed and unsentimental. Like the Handel, Impressions is centered on an assertive, upbeat D major, doubtless one of many of the evening’s (and festival’s) symmetries.
Cage popped up on the coda: the redoubtable Shelton ostentatiously overlaid a grid to the intimate room’s seating plan and triangulated on a surprised patron to bestow a door prize: an apple. Exeunt omnes ridendi.
In his piano masterclass on Saturday morning, Kalish nudged and wheedled thoughtfully honed performances from gifted YB veteran students. Tomer Gewirtzman (Haifa, Juilliard) refined dynamics in Beethoven’s Andante Favori (1804), achieving an ‘expressive but not insubstantial’ pianissimo and sandpapering overly detailed echoes and coquettish staccatos. EunAn Lee (Seoul, Juilliard, Mannes) toned down Mozart’s Sonata in D K.576 (1789), wielding less force, more grace, and lighter pedal, to better capture the character of the 1775 keyboard. Alice Chenyang Xu (Chengdu, NEC, Tufts) reined in her explosive yet captivating vision of Ravel’s Scarbo from Gaspard de la Nuit (1908) by controlling long, slow builds, pedaling judiciously, shaping the arc. (Nonmusical note: I was delighted to spy a silver-spotted skipper nectaring on the garden’s white hydrangeas.)
Saturday evening focused on farflung Finland and Madagascar, then turned on a drum to German classics and a beloved song cycle of inner turbulent wanderings. Nordic composers, by dint of their geographic and spiritual remove from the Euro-American mainstream, notes critic Tim Page, have achieved “unusual creative independence”. Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Ballad for Harp and Strings (1973/1981) placed harpist Marion Ravot (Paris Conservatoire, Juilliard) afront a string quintet, plucking bright, arpeggiated fairy-rings amid mossy forest carpets spread by cellist Sein Lee (Seoul, Yonsei, Yale) and bassist Peter Walsh (Dallas, BU). Mysteries of the natural world prevail in this composer’s latter-day romantic works: his Cantus Arcticus weaves migrating birdcalls into symphonic poem, with rattled bows and yawning open tunings hauntingly evoking Lapland’s vast, unpeopled forests.
Shelton did well to read English translations of Évariste de Parny’s steamy poems before singing Ravel’s Chansons madécasses (1925-26). Ah yes, French colonials raise a genteel eyebrow, then grind a heel into the natives’ necks. Shelton’s seductive tone and exquisite diction expressed leafy decadence and human outrage equally ominously, backed by Kalish, flutist Rosie Gallagher (Sydney, Juilliard, Royal Academy of Music) and cellist Coleman Itzkoff (Cincinnati, Rice, USC).
Knopp crafts his programs as executive chefs present multicourse dinners, highlighting main dishes, setting them off with palate cleansers. So Love Letter for solo hand drum served as a breather between weightier expressions of colonial oppression and romantic exuberance. Australian Liza Lim (b1966) wrote it (2011) on a postcard, directing performers to “transpose the letters of each word into rhythmic information including silences.” Sam Seyong Um (Derwood MD, Yale, Eastman) stroked his thin-skinned drum (like a Middle Eastern daf or tar) gently, with glancing reflectiveness, perhaps a tinge of regret.
Three classics of German romanticism capped the evening. Cellist Yoshika Masuda (Sydney, Conservatorium, USC) and pianist Xu brought refreshing verve and meticulous to Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, Op.70 (1849). Peter Frankl joined longtime YB colleague Kalish at the piano in a rollicking review of Brahms’ 16 Waltzes Op. 39 (1865), replete with near-jostling gemutlichkeit, like old buddies at the bierstube.
Space limitations mean YB ensembles seldom reach double figures. (Composer-in-residence Steven Mackey’s Four Iconoclastic Episodes and Arnold Schoenberg’s Notturno will top 20 players later this season, which ends August 4.) Opening weekend ensembles reached 16 for Handel and 11 in a chamber version of Songs of a Wayfarer (1883-85). Heyn, a formidable soprano and actress, commanded the runaway emotional rollercoaster ridden by Mahler’s (here librettist) unrequited lover. She ranged, fiercely untrammeled, not a whit arch or reserved, through her sharply jaundiced vision of birds and flowers, ironic dialogue with cheery finch and bright bluebell; weathered a knife deep in her breast at the mere thought of blue eyes and blond locks; and, under a blossoming linden tree, let us all relive youth’s inevitable reprieve and resurrection. Unusual textures from the humming antique organ of Pedro Borges (Vila Nova de Gaia Portugal, Musik-Akademie Basel] and Um’s tingling triangle bestowed on the scene Mother Nature’s hallelujah.
But what’s this? Who’s back for yet another coda? Why, the irrepressible Mr. Cage. William Sharp of YB’s vocal faculty appeared, quite alone, to give eloquent voice to Experiences No .2 (1948), which, with poetry of e. e. cummings, adroitly echoed the wayfarer’s fascination with his beloved’s eyes.
Sunday’s Gala Concert featured another strong male voice, that of Theo Bleckmann, Grammy-nominated jazz singer and new-music composer. Bleckmann fearlessly collaborates with musicians, artists, actors and composers: Laurie Anderson, Uri Caine, Kate Bush, Philip Glass, Sheila Jordan, and Meredith Monk, in whose core ensemble he worked 15 years. He teamed up brilliantly in a June workshop right at YB with the Westerlies, a robust and rigorous “accidental brass quartet” of four childhood Seattle pals: Riley Mulherkar and Cody Rowlands trumpets, Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch trombones. The five cobbled together, through sweat and sweet art, a fascinatingly eclectic and astonishingly timely program of Songs of Refuge and Resistance. Joni Mitchell and Judee Sill, hip ’60s icons, bookended the show with the subtly nerve-striking anti-war beauties The Fiddle and The Drum and The Kiss. Composer Phil Kline set to music words by two of our era’s polarizing personalities: ex-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Emma Gonzalez, spokeswoman after the Stoneman High massacre, in March. Band members set poems of alienation by foreign-born Americans; Bleckmann wrote a Fourth of July meditation in which Brecht’s “Children’s Prayer”, activist Joe Hill’s Salvation Army parody, and traditional slave song “Wade in the Water” all appeared. Peppered throughout were Woody Guthrie rabblerousers ( “Tear the Fascists Down”, for example), set in a snappy 2/4 for the horns alone.
Bleckmann sang like a fallen angel and the horns buoyed him on clouds, like Raphael putti. What a great fit for Yankee grit and edgy freethinking! Putney’s been a haven for progressives since the 1840s Bible Communist movement. Putney School and Landmark College are innovation institutions. Yellow Barn’s egalitarian community of international scholarship students and devoted professionals has gathered to mine the rich heritage of radical chamber music from Baroque to Brooklyn for darn near 50 years. More power to them.
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Yellow Barn’s 2018 calendar is here; more on the composer in residence: Steven Mackey (Brandeis, Princeton, Koussevitzky Foundation, Kronos Quartet, electric guitar, CIR @ Yellow Barn 2003, Tanglewood 2007, Aspen 2007), while patrons enjoy visual stimuli as well, viewing Bill Kelly’s daily program posters, on prominent display during concerts since the 1990s. The late British composer, Oliver Knussen, will be memorialized at Yellow Barn in the program of Friday July 13th with three early chamber pieces (Op. 14-16) for piano, violin and piano, and oboe and string trio.
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.