Yellow Barn in the Washington Post

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Celia Wren writes for The Washington Post in advance of a performance at the Jewish Literary Festival in Washington, DC on October 20, 2014:

A tale some 600 years old will turn another page Oct. 20, when the multimedia concert “The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book” has its D.C. premiere. The production, with an original accordion-and-piano score by Bosnian-born composer and accordionist Merima Kljuco, draws on the staggeringly eventful history of the eponymous liturgical volume, whose origins may date as far back as the mid-14th century.

The concert is part of this year’s Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, mounted by the D.C. Jewish Community Center and running Oct. 19-29.

A Haggadah, the order of service used at the Passover Seder, includes a recounting of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. The richly illustrated and ornamented volume that became known as the Sarajevo Haggadah originated in medieval Spain at a time of relative harmony for that country’s Jewish, Christian and Muslim citizens. After surviving Spain’s expulsion of the Jews in 1492, the book turned up in Venice, where, in 1609, a Catholic censor’s inscription seems to have preserved it from destruction in the Inquisition.

By 1894, the Haggadah was in Sarajevo. During World War II, a Muslim librarian at Sarajevo’s national museum hid the book from the Nazis, and during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, another Muslim librarian saved the priceless volume by moving it to a bank vault during fierce shelling.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is “a symbol of survival, and a symbol that inspires respect and tolerance toward different traditions and cultures,” says Kljuco, who grew up in Sarajevo and remembers a society that — before the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s — reveled in diversity. Families such as hers, she said, celebrated holidays with Jewish, Christian and Muslim neighbors and felt a bond with multiple cultural heritages.

“It was a very difficult moment for most of us when the nationalists came to power and started to divide us,” Kljuco said by phone from her home in Los Angeles.

Kljuco started playing the accordion at age 12. She lived through part of the war but left Bosnia in 1993, when she was 19, and continued her musical studies in Germany and the Netherlands. About four years ago, a friend gave her a copy of “People of the Book,” a novel about the Sarajevo Haggadah by Geraldine Brooks, who had covered the Bosnian war for the Wall Street Journal. Kljuco was familiar with story of the Haggadah, but Brooks’s book gave her a jolt of inspiration: She decided to compose a piece of music that would follow the book’s journey through the centuries.

The Sarajevo Haggadah’s unusual illustrations depict, among other events, God’s creation of the world, so Kljuco began her 12-movement composition with a sequence in which her accordion mimics the sound of breath — an evocation of metaphysical and artistic creation. Subsequent portions of the score incorporate fragments of Sephardic melodies and bits of traditional Bosnian music and reference a medieval Jewish-Italian dance. And, Kljuco says, with clusters of notes in the piano’s low register, she “tried to paint musically the terrifying sounds I experienced during the war” in Bosnia.

Kljuco worked on the piece during a residency at Yellow Barn, a center for chamber music in Putney, Vt. That organization’s artistic director, Seth Knopp (a founding member of the Peabody Trio), became the pianist for the work, which grew to incorporate Bart Woodstrup’s video imagery. Woodstrup digitally animated the Haggadah’s illustrations and other features in such a way as to evoke the book’s historical experience. For instance, Kljuco said, the visual accompaniment to a movement she titled “Inquisitor” shows pages of the Haggadah engulfed in flames — until the 1609 inscription by the Catholic censor appears, seeming to extinguish the fire.

Commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Culture’s New Jewish Culture Network, “The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book” had its world premiere at Yellow Barn in March. It also has been seen in Dallas, San Francisco and elsewhere. At its debut in the Boston area in late March, novelist Brooks experienced the piece for the first time.

“I was completely blown away by it,” Brooks said by phone from her home on Martha’s Vineyard. The range and artistry of Kljuco’s music, she says, was a particular surprise: “I had always thought of the accordion as polka, you know?” Instead, Brooks said, Kljuco “takes you to war with this instrument. She takes you on a journey through sinuous Spanish-inflected music, through Italian music, through music of the Ladino community in their exile. In her hands, it’s such a versatile instrument.”

The piano contributes further atmosphere, Brooks said, and the video “draws on the artistry of the Sarajevo Haggadah but reinterprets it in this delicious feast for the eye.”

For the Boston-area debut, Brooks contributed an introduction and participated in a post-performance discussion, and she will handle similar duties in Washington. Audiences appreciate hearing about “the various hands that saved” the Haggadah over time, she said.

The book, Brooks said, has survived instances of “this recurring disease we humans have of demonizing otherness” and has become “a symbol of those who can stand up against these poisonous ideologies of Us and Them.”

The D.C. performance of “The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book” is not the first offering in the Jewish Literary Festival — there’s a local-author fair Oct. 19 — but it is being billed as the official opening event.

DCJCC’s chief executive officer, Carole R. Zawatsky, said the production’s use of 21st-century technology to bring “vibrant life” to a 14th-century artifact “encapsulates the dynamism” of the Jewish experience.

“Jews have lived all over the globe and are also always in the process of reinvigorating our own story throughout time and space,” she said.

The Boston Globe on summers at Yellow Barn

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

"By the conservative calculus that governs the agendas of so many mainstream summer chamber music festivals, concerts like those at Yellow Barn shouldn’t really exist. And yet they do."

On August 2nd Jeremy Eichler visited Putney for our season finale and three days later this feature appeared in The Boston Globe:

Every music festival has its own myth of origins, some more modest than others. Back in the late 1960s, a New York-based cellist named David Wells began inviting his students and musical friends to gather in this small southern Vermont town for informal summer chamber music retreats. The tradition coalesced into Yellow Barn, a music festival named for the barn next to Wells’s farmhouse, where the concerts originally took place.

In this part of the country, a history like this one can easily be overshadowed. There were no visionary Russian conductors associated, nor any European musical luminaries fleeing the war. “Peter Grimes” did not receive its American premiere here. But some two decades after the event, I still recall attending a blazing performance of Bartok’s “Contrasts” in the mid-1990s, played in the rough-hewn old barn space with audience members dangling their feet over the edges of a loft. Nearby was a large and beautiful garden where, if memory serves, some of the participants’ food was grown that summer.

Wells retired in 2002 and passed the torch to the pianist Seth Knopp, who has overseen an era of both continuity and change at Yellow Barn. Early-career musicians and faculty members now come from across the country. Performances now take place in a more recently built concert space inspired by the intimacy of the old barn but with room for modern amenities. Artist residencies are now scheduled throughout the year, incubating new works and keeping up momentum well beyond the summer months.

But informality and modesty still work in the festival’s favor, keeping the focus on artistic substance. Celebrity artists who drive ticket sales elsewhere do not usually come to Yellow Barn (and when one happens to drop by, as on Saturday night, he is unannounced). The attendant helping you park your car may well have been a performer on the previous night’s program. And native blueberries top the vanilla ice cream served in drinking cups at intermission.

All of this said, these days, Yellow Barn’s not-so-secret draw for chamber music devotees is often its programming. Knopp seems to curate concerts for the benefit of his own musicians and for some idealized fantasy audience that is catholic in taste, fearless in curiosity, and possessed of an ear for both tradition and adventure. A casual flip through the summer’s program book gives you the idea, while also sparking a play of questions both serious and whimsical: Has Mozart’s D-minor Quartet ever shared a bill with works by composer-pipa player Gao Hong and Hanns Eisler? How do Bach, Boulez, and Philippe Hersant work together on a single concert? Why in all these years have I never heard a single work by André Boucourechliev (1925-1997) in live performance, and how will his “Archipel I” sound alongside Dvorak’s Sextet (Op. 48)? There is indeed a wonderful improbability to this whole endeavor. By the conservative calculus that governs the agendas of so many mainstream summer chamber music festivals, concerts like those at Yellow Barn shouldn’t really exist. And yet they do.

Saturday night’s season finale presented a characteristic mixture of old and new, beginning with Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio in an attentive performance, elastic in phrasing and transparent in detail, by Luke Hsu (violin), Jonathan Dormand (cello), and Joseph Liccardo (piano). Right on its heels came George Benjamin’s Octet of 1978, an early and fearsomely precocious work written just after Benjamin had concluded his studies with Olivier Messiaen. Cast in a single capacious movement and scored for flute (here, Brook Ferguson), clarinet (Alan Kay), violin (Ari Isaacman-Beck), viola (Tegen Davidge), cello (Madeline Fayette), bass (Elizabeth Burns), percussion (Eduardo Leandro), and celesta (Mei Rui), the Octet demonstrates how the composer at just 18 years of age had the makings of a highly individual voice, one already marked by a striking timbral imagination. Saturday’s performance had a lucidity and dramatic tension that made it riveting.

Drawing out connections between teachers and students has been one of the summer’s loosely defined programming themes, so it was surely no coincidence that the Benjamin was followed by Messiaen’s own “Theme et Variations,” a searching and poetic work written in 1932 as a wedding present for the composer’s first wife. Knopp and violinist Mayumi Kanagawa aptly conveyed the score’s distilled intensity of expression and the diamond-like hardness of its surfaces. Next came a high-spirited account of “Five Seasons” by the Chinese-born American composer Lei Liang, in residence this summer at Yellow Barn. While its itinerary is partly inspired by ancient Chinese thought about the nature of the seasons, including a fifth season between summer and autumn, the piece also stands on its own without a program thanks to its virtuosic and innovative approach to bringing together a traditional instrument (pipa, here played by Gao) with string quartet (Suliman Tekalli and Zenas Hsu, violins; Xinyi Xu, viola; Frédéric Rosselet, cello).

The night ended with one last riff on the teacher-student theme by way of a surprise appearance from Knopp’s own teacher, pianist Leon Fleisher, who told a delighted audience that he had been “abducted in a Subaru from that little music camp down the road.” He was there to close the season and did just that, with a lyrical and glowing account of Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are,” in an arrangement for left hand by Stephen Prutsman.

Leon Fleisher and Seth Knopp (Photo: Zachary Stephens)

On Bach's "Musical Offering"

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

On Wednesday, July 30, 2014, Yellow Barn will present a unique edition of Bach's Musical Offering, created by Kenneth Cooper. Ken offers the following notes as an introduction to the performance:

Regis Iussu Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resoluta”

(At the king’s command, the theme and its solution resolved in canonical manner)

From the Berlin newspaper Spenersche Zeitung, May 11, 1747:

"We hear from Potsdam that last Sunday, May 7, 1747, the famous Capellmeister from Leipzig, Bach, arrived with the intention of hearing the excellent Royal music. In the evening, at about the time when the regular chamber music in the royal apartments usually begins, his Majesty was informed that Capellmeister Bach had arrived at Potsdam and was waiting in His Majesty’s antechamber for His Majesty’s most gracious permission to listen to the music. His August Self immediately gave orders that Bach be admitted, and went, at his entrance, to the so-called Forte-and-Piano, condescending also to play, in person and without any preparation, a theme to be executed by Capellmeister Bach in a fugue. This was done so happily by the aforementioned Capellmeister, that not only His Majesty was pleased to show his satisfaction, but also all those present were seized with astonishment. Bach has found the subject propounded to him so exceedingly beautiful that he intends to set it down on paper in a regular fugue and have it engraved on copper."

Bach did just that, but in attempting to save paper, the work’s various sections were published on sheets of different sizes, confusing many as to the sequential order, if any.

The Musical Offering is time-conscious, expressing a historical perspective unusual for Bach and his era. Perhaps he was, in his years of semi-retirement, contemplating the work of past and future generations of Bachs. We start two hundred years earlier, as it were, in the Renaissance, with an old style three-voice fugue, then called Ricercar, which Bach expanded by means of modernistic keyboard improvisations, serving as episodes in the fugue. Progressing through the contrapuntal playground of the canon, the art of setting a tune against itself, we arrive in the 1740s with perhaps the Baroque’s greatest trio-sonata. This four-movement work explodes into Bach’s present and immediate future: the florid and improvisatory, personal and rhetorical, virtuoso and democratic writing of his own times and the sensitive, fragile, pre-classical, pre-romantic manners of his son’s generation. The first part of the royal theme appears in the bass line (cello and harpsichord) at the opening of the first movement and again later (still in the bass) split up into many fragments. In the second movement, the violin and flute open with an ornamented version of the royal theme played backwards. Four times during the movement the royal subject (forwards, in the bass) may be heard simultaneously against the ornamented version (backwards, in the violin or flute). But only once are the roles reversed (the royal tune in the violin above the backwards ornamented version in the bass): this event occurs at the exact mathematical (time) center of the Trio Sonata, which in our version creates the center point of the entire Musical Offering. It is an eclipse-like moment, comparable to little else in the history of music. Then moving backwards in time, stylistically, through Bach’s Canonic Elaborations, we arrive at the mighty six-voice Ricercar, a masterwork even among Bach fugues, which meshes the severity of a completely de-ornamented style with the rich sensuality of a close ensemble.

In memory of Gabor Reisinger

Friday, July 18, 2014

On July 18th in the Big Barn Yellow Barn honors Gabor Reisinger, extraordinary friend and artisan, who along with his brother Sujatri had the vision for Klavierhaus, a haven for pianos and musicians. Among those pianos are two that Gabor brought to life for Yellow Barn, which live on campus together with others that Klavierhaus generously loans to us each summer. Gabor also was a beautiful, humble presence during Yellow Barn auditions, creating an environment in which hundreds of musicians were able to experience, in just a few moments, what is at the heart of Yellow Barn.

Gabor Reisinger was born in Budapest, Hungary on May 5, 1957. After leaving Hungary in 1984 with his wife Klara and daughter Reka, he lived for a while in France but was soon reunited with his brother in New York City. In 1987, the two brothers founded Klavierhaus, a piano store in Manhattan, where Gabor rebuilt hundreds of Steinway pianos with a European-style dedication to his craft, giving him a legacy, through his pianos, that today can be heard throughout the United States, as well as many other places around the world.

Over time Klavierhaus grew to be the favorite destination of the world’s top pianists, including Richard Goode, Andras Schiff, Emmanuel Ax, Jeremy Denk, and Simone Dinnerstein, among many others, artists who always found a welcoming place in Klavierhaus’ custom designed hall where they met, taught, and prepared for their recitals. Countless conservatory students, as well as teachers of pianists at every level, found at Klavierhaus a place for their debuts and recitals, and often at no charge. Such was Gabor’s generous commitment to music and the arts for nearly three decades—a kindheartedness that not only inspired countless amateurs, but also helped launch the international careers of many professional as well.

Gabor gave not only his piano facilities, but also his time to all those who needed his help, instruction, and wise counsel, and always with warmth and humor. A Tai-chi master, he practiced and taught at the Chu Tai-chi studio in Time Square, and conducted the popular open admission summer morning classes in Bryant Park. He possessed a unique ability to see and bring out the best in everyone he encountered.

A lover of nature, Gabor spent his leisure time hiking, mountain climbing, diving, and even running endurance races in far-flung, exotic places such as the Sahara Desert. In his travels, whether they be crossing a room or an ocean, he was a person who truly understood and made peace with people from every walk of life.

Gabor, who always welcomed Yellow Barn like family, is deeply missed and tonight we embrace his family with the love and kindness that Gabor always bestowed on us.

Diana in the Autumn Wind

Monday, July 7, 2014

Paul Klee (1879-1940)
Diana in the Autumn Wind (1934)

In the mid-1980s, inspired by the paintings of Paul Klee, Edison Denisov wrote three pieces for viola, double bass, percussion, and piano. One of those paintings is "Diana in the Autumn Wind", a soft cloth painting created fifty years earlier.

"Diana in the Autumn Wind" speaks of hardship, of a tragic and terrible web, but there are aspects that are very poetic and full of air. Simply put, this is a very soft, slightly greenish painted approximation of the curved silhouette of a very beautiful woman with my favorite part of the image—autumn, leaves flying in the wind. And the name of the painting—"Diana in the Autumn Wind"—is amazingly musical itself.

—Edison Denisov

Yellow Barn musicians perform Diana im Herbstwind on Thursday, July 10, 2014.
Read about this program

Pre-Concert Discussions at Yellow Barn

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

On summer Saturdays, audience members are invited to the Putney Public Library for an intimate introduction to the evening’s concert given by Yellow Barn musicians and guest speakers, moderated by Artistic Director Seth Knopp.

Saturday, July 5

Wolfgang von Goethe's "Nachtlied", one of the most revered poems in the German language, is the inspiration for two works on this evening's Yellow Barn program. Wellesley College professor Jens Kruse will speak about "Nachtlied" and join Yellow Barn musicians in a discussion of Schubert and Widmann's treatment of it.
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Saturday, July 12

A composer's palette, the instruments he or she writes for, can suggest creative paths born out of that instrumentation's most natural qualities, or stretch them in ways that have a profound effect on a work's emotional impact. Yellow Barn musicians look at the evening's program, exploring four very different instrumental combinations.
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Saturday, July 19

George Cumb's music is unmistakably his own, not only in the atmosphere he creates, but also in how he communicates his musical intention to the interpreter. Soprano Tiffany Du Moucelle and pianist Emely Phelps speak about Crumb's setting of Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" in his Apparition, Elegiac Songs and Vocalises, examining the composer's world of sound and how he represents it in his distinctive and beautiful scores.
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Saturday, July 26

Yellow Barn Composer in Residence Lei Liang and pipa player Gao Hong bring a broad range of Chinese musical traditions to this Yellow Barn summer season. From ancient folk music to contemporary works receiving first performances at Yellow Barn, they discuss how their work has been shaped by their own cultural heritage and influenced by that of the West.
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Saturday, August 2

George Benjamin writes about his Octet, "Sketching was begun only months after the conclusion of my studies with Olivier Messiaen: the Octet was very much my first attempt to integrate all that I had learnt in Paris." Yellow Barn musicians, among them Eduardo Leandro, clarinetist Alan Kay, and composer Lei Liang, discuss the delicate baalnce of integration and independence in the musical relationship between teacher and student.
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All discussions take place at the Putney Public Library at 7pm and are free and open to the public. Concert attendance is not required.