The Music Hall Exits the Building

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

(Photo: Zachary Stephens, courtesy Nasher Sculpture Center)

Jeremy Hallock writes for the Dallas Observer:

In The Shawshank Redemption, Tim Robbins plays Mozart over the prison’s public address system and locks himself in the control room. All the prisoners stop what they are doing and listen. They were shocked that it was actually happening, but inspired. And they understood the music. When Seth Knopp brought musicians to play chamber music on a street in a particularly brutal part of Baltimore, it seemed to surprise and inspire people in a similar way.

It was one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in West Baltimore. Many of the houses were boarded up with the words “Thou Shalt Not Kill” written on them. In those neighborhoods, the only beauty is typically what people create for themselves. But the music of Bach mesmerized the neighborhood's residents, who stood around and took pictures.

Creative director Seth Knopp kicks off the sixth season of The Nasher’s Soundings series by combining it with Yellow Barn’s Music Haul, a project that puts music halls on streets. Before the performance Thursday night on Flora Street in front of the Nasher, there will be a daytime community performance today and perhaps tomorrow: Follow the Nasher on social media to find out where.

Knopp is artistic director of Yellow Barn, an international center for chamber music out of Southeastern Vermont. Yellow Barn’s Music Haul is a traveling concert stage. “It’s the feeling of a concert,” Knopp says. “People don’t have to go through the formality of attending something, something comes to them.” He understands that chamber music excites the senses, creating natural curiosity. Knopp believes this will help people realize that it’s not important to “understand” the music.

In addition to giving impromptu performances in neighborhoods, Yellow Barn’s Music Haul also performs at schools and has more formal events, like the performance Thursday night in front of the Nasher. Each program is different, curated specifically for its site. “We’ve done six concerts incredibly varied in nature,” says Knopp. “Each one has been an incredible learning experience.” Whether listeners knew the composer or not, they seemed transfixed by what they heard, he says.

Knopp knows there are many people who have never been to a classical music concert. “They think they aren’t interested in what they label as classical music,” he says. Some may think they don’t know enough about classical music to attend a concert, but Knopp insists this just isn’t the case. “The only people who need to be educated in the equation are the musicians who are performing,” he says. “It’s their job to make it communicate to anybody. Beethoven didn’t write his music for conservatory graduates and professors, he wrote it for humanity. Bach wrote his sacred music for people in church.”

Yellow Barn’s Music Haul will perform tonight in Bishop Arts. The exact location has not yet been disclosed, but the Nasher will announce it through social media. The program has not yet been finalized, but programs will be handed out during the performance. There may also be another street performance tomorrow during the day.

“This sort of thing has never been done before,” says Knopp. “The idea of rock concerts on these stages has been done.” But the Yellow Barn’s Music Haul doesn’t perform on a flatbed truck; it unfolds into something that really does resemble a music hall on wheels. It tries to create a beautiful setting, the feeling of being in another space, like walking into a music hall. The music begins as the stage is being set up, so there is no anticipation. The performance just starts unfolding.

Knopp came up with the idea when he was across from Carnegie Hall at a piano store one morning. There was rush hour traffic and a piano tuner was banging on a piano. “It’s not the greatest sound in the world,” Knopp says. But throngs of people walking by were curious about the noise. It was something out of context, enough to make them stop and peek into the store. During rush hour traffic on a busy street, it surprised Knopp that a single note being played on a piano could cause so much curiosity.

Somewhat surprisingly, Knopp actually enjoys giving up the cozy setting of a normal music hall. He likes transitioning from programming for a concert stage to a street, realizing an increased need for amplification. If church bells are going to ring during a performance, he has to find a way to make it work with the program. There are contingencies that cannot be planned for, but only a hailstorm has stopped a performance so far. At one performance, the music was echoing off the backs of buildings. “We got this kind of amazing stereophonic delay system,” says Knopp.

Yellow Barn’s Music Haul performances are some of the most moving experiences he’s had. “Conversations happen all the time about elitism,” Knopp says. “About how the arts are for a privileged few.” But as a child, he wanted to make music solely because it spoke to him. And he knows it can speak to anybody.