To Make Every Summer a Great Adventure

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Jon Potter writes for The Brattleboro Reformer:

Yellow Barn begins its 44th season with a love letter.

Friday’s season-opening concert includes the "Adagietto" from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, one which the composer wrote as a letter to his beloved Alma.

For Yellow Barn Artistic Director Seth Knopp, the Mahler was just the right piece to put on Friday’s opening night concert, which is being presented as A Tribute to David Wells.

For the first time in its 44-year history, Yellow Barn is without David Wells, the monumental, sweet man who co-founded the festival with his wife Janet. David Wells died last August at age 85, just a few days after the 43rd season had come to a close.

For Knopp and most of the other faculty members, thoughts of David Wells will be with them throughout the summer -- and always.

"I miss him. Every summer will be his," said Knopp. "David was primarily, almost exclusively, about music. Most important of all, I feel that’s my responsibility, to keep that going. I wanted to continue trying to make every summer, this one like any other one, a great adventure."

"Adventure" is a word that comes up a lot at Yellow Barn. It guides the approach to music, and it certainly applies to the programming. Yellow Barn concerts are famously diverse, with contemporary pieces placed side by side with older masterpieces in ways that invite thoughtful comparison. The season begins with a piece by Bach, who was born in 1685; it ends with a piece by Lei Liang, who was both in 1972.

Yellow Barn's adventurous side has attracted notice from the wider musical world. Last fall, Chamber Music America honored Yellow Barn with its Award for Adventurous Programming.

"I was especially happy that it wasn't an award for programming new music. It's more about the dialogue than it is about Yellow Barn doing new music," said Knopp.

Those dialogues have led Yellow Barn to some interesting, adventurous places in the past year.

In late May and early June, Yellow Barn’s road led to Texas for performances of Gerard Grisey’s 1981 masterpiece "Le Noir de L’Etoile", a piece inspired by the discovery of pulsars, outdoors at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and then at a remote stargazers' paradise in Marfa, Texas.

In March, soprano Susan Narucki and a team of musical collaborators gathered in Putney for residency to work on an opera "Cuatro Corridos", about human trafficking, which will have its premiere in the San Diego area. Earlier in June, during the Young Artist Program, Yellow Barn collaborated with family members of Tuesday's Children, an organization committed to providing support and services for children who lost loved ones on 9/11.

In November, Yellow Barn returns to Dallas to take part in special programming commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The program, developed in residence at Yellow Barn by the Brentano String Quartet, clarinetist Charles Neidlich and pianist Knopp, includes "One Red Rose", a composition by Stephen Mackey co-commissioned by Yellow Barn, Nasher Sculpture Center and Carnegie Hall, which will be performed and broadcast from the Sixth Floor Museum.

All this adventurous programming may seem far removed from a festival which began 44 years in David and Janet Wells' home, imbued from the start with a special nurturing, family atmosphere exemplified by dinners on their front porch.

"What came first was idea of music. These ideas came out of trying to get to a deeper understanding of the piece itself," said Knopp. "Music leads us into the world, and the world leads us into music. ... And that, getting back to David, was how he lived."

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