50 Years of Musical Collaboration and Learning

Friday, September 6, 2019

Earlier this summer, Howard Weiss-Tisman, reporter for Vermont Public Radio, wrote this story commemorating Yellow Barn's 50th anniversary.

▶️ Listen to the story as it was broadcast on July 23, 2019

(Howard Weiss-Tisman/VPR)

The Yellow Barn music festival in Putney is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Back in 1969, local resident David Wells was a professor at the Manhattan School of Music. He invited a group of his students up to his place in Vermont to enjoy the summer, eat some good food and explore classical chamber music.

Wells and his wife, Janet, introduced the students to the community. In return, Putney embraced the idea of having young musicians from around the world in their small town. Neighbors cooked potluck meals, they put up some of the students, and throughout the summer they would gather inside the yellow barn for a night of chamber music.

Wells died in 2012, but musicians from around the world are still coming to Putney every summer to play music at Yellow Barn.

"This is home — and that's what's always been remarkable about Yellow Barn," said Catherine Stephan, the current executive director of Yellow Barn. 

Stephan first came up to play music at Yellow Barn 25 years ago when she was a 20-year-old cellist; then 10 years ago, she came back and became executive director.

"None of it would be what it is without the love that David and Janet brought to Yellow Barn and brought into this room," she said. "They brought out the best in every single one of us."

(Howard Weiss-Tisman/VPR)

Wells continued to invite students up every summer. The festival grew, in both size and prominence, and eventually invitations went out to young musicians who weren't only working with Wells.

In 2002, a new barn was built just up the road. That's where, on a recent afternoon, an ensemble was practicing for a special program commemorating the Yellow Barn's 50th anniversary.

In the summer of 1969, the students at Yellow Barn gathered to watch the Apollo 11 moon landing. This summer, Yellow Barn put together a night of classical and contemporary moon music — including a piece by composer Arnold Schoenberg from the early 20th century: "Pierrot in the Moonlight."

Auditions for this year were held at 50 sites around the world, and more than 500 people auditioned for about 40 slots in the 2019 summer program.

Yellow Barn artistic director Seth Knopp said even though Yellow Barn has grown, that original idea of having musicians come up to Vermont to teach, learn, and share their talents and love of music, is what drives the audition process.

"David wanted to work with his students and have them improve over the summer. And that's the thing that I wanted to protect more than anything else," Knopp said. "It's not so much a matter of, you know, showing their wares or their terrific playing. You know, everyone here I feel has the means to grow. They have the means to do meaningful searching in music."

Anthony Marwood has been coming to Yellow Barn as a faculty member since 2000. Marwood performs around the world, and last year was recognized by Queen Elizabeth II for his work.

He said he makes time in his schedule every year to spend a few weeks in Putney to slow down, spend time with the music, and to teach young musicians and to learn from them. When he leaves Putney each year, Marwood said he tries to hold on to all of that for as long as he can.

"The world is a very strange and peculiar place at the moment, I feel. And there's ... a lot of focus on what is troubling, and I feel personally there is a lot to be troubled by," Marwood said. "So it's very important in one's life to actually go the other way and to be engaged with something that really feels enormously positive. I mean, to put it bluntly, working with these young players gives one really great hope for the future. And that's a very valuable resource for us all right now."

There are Yellow Barn concerts and events in Putney into the first week of August, including a special 50th anniversary gala celebration on Aug. 3. That will take place at the original yellow barn near the home of David and Janet Wells.