Later this month, pianist Marisa Gupta, violinist Maria Włoszczowska, violist Rosalind Ventris, and cellist Jonathan Dormand will return to Yellow Barn for a second residency exploring playing styles heard on early recordings. The quartet will culminate their residency, entitled Faithful to the Spirit, with a concert on Monday, March 6 at 8:00pm at Next Stage in Putney.
In this post, Marisa reflects on last year’s residency and introduces the topics she hopes to explore this year.
There was controversy recently when Nigel Kennedy accused the music establishment of producing “factory lines” of pianists and violinists, emphasizing technical perfection at the expense of individuality. “You do hear some amazing talent, but [it] has been kind of fettered,” he told the Observer. “If you listen to one version of a Brahms concerto or Beethoven against another one, they’re unfortunately too similar.” It has been interesting to contemplate this as I prepare for our return to Yellow Barn and reflect upon our residency last season.
Though I think it is doubtful that music colleges and record companies have consciously colluded to produce perfect automatons, devoid of individual expression, Nigel Kennedy raises an important point that lies at the heart of our residency: the need to question the uniformity and rigidity of playing styles today.
Our residency at Yellow Barn has allowed us to examine some of the complex factors that unwittingly led to this conformity (see earlier blog posts for more). The sense of discovery, risk taking and creativity associated with Yellow Barn has made it a fruitful environment in which to experiment with more daring ways of playing - ever supported by Seth Knopp’s encouragement to expand these boundaries further and further.
Our time last season was transformative in ways we didn’t expect. The lightness, brisk tempi, and ‘swing’ of Grieg’s own playing compelled us to propel our performance of his Cello Sonata forward, beyond our natural inclinations.
Performing Three Pieces for Piano Trio, based on fragments by Elgar though not completed by him, was liberating because it was music we neither previously knew, nor viewed as hallowed (as the pieces were not completed by the composer). Thus, we were more adventurous in experimenting with different ways of capturing the spirit of Elgar’s music, particularly in regards to tempo fluctuations, rubato, and synchronicity - inspired by some of the early performers we heard. This led to extremes in performance that we perhaps wouldn’t have attempted in a more canonical work.
The Piano Quintet in c minor by Vaughan Williams was a revelation for us. It was performed during the composer’s life, but a ban was placed on its publication, as Vaughan Williams did not consider it a mature work. Luckily for us his wife lifted the ban after the composer’s death and the piece is now published. In it one finds a great and moving masterwork. Though it was not a piece we were overly familiar with, in the process of rehearsing, one of the questions posed by Rosie Ventris was, were our interpretative decisions truly ours, or did we play passages in a certain way because that was what we heard in the few modern recordings that did exist of the piece? It made me question more broadly - to what extent is my playing genuinely mine? Am I truly conscious of the degree to which I am influenced by recordings I hear?
In trying to work with a wider expressive palate, some things were effective, and others, not quite idiomatic (yet) within the expressive world we have been conditioned in. Some fingerings from the original performers simply did not work with our physicality, nor did they sound good to our ears. There were instances where the string players experimented with slides, and while they may have been historically correct our attempts at that stage sounded contrived.
Ultimately though, our goal was never to resurrect a dead style. Rather, our time at Yellow Barn has been about looking to the past to help us unlock richer ways of communicating the spirit of the music we perform, in a way that is modern, energetic and emotionally direct. We look forward to seeing where the second part of our residency leads us.
(Photo taken after last year's Faithful to the Spirit residency concert)
Alisa Dworsky, Fine Cord 60, 2010, 9" x 9" image on 19" x 15" paper, multiple registration intaglio print using softground technique; Courtesy the artist
My drawings and prints are constructed of lines that follow from movement but they also define points in space, hesitation, and mass. The prints in the Fine Cord Series are made from multiple registrations of various zinc plates which I prepared using a soft ground technique. A fine nylon cord was used to make marks in the soft ground prior to exposing the plate to acid. Many of the prints use ghost and offset impressions.
Alisa Dworsky creates sculpture, installations, buildings, drawings and prints; her work in one discipline influences her work in another. She is interested in how structure and force give shape to form and in the way human beings use geometric systems to order their environments. Her work is inspired by textiles, agricultural patterns, computer drawings, topographical maps, architecture and the principle of quantum physics that in all matter there is movement.
Dworsky has created installations for contemporary arts spaces around the country: the LAL in Lexington Kentucky, 516 Arts in Albuquerque New Mexico, Artspace in New Haven Connecticut, and in Vermont for the Bennington Museum, Burlington City Arts, the Burlington waterfront, the Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont, the Brattleboro Museum, The Vermont College of Fine Arts, and the Vermont Agency of Transportation. Awards include a Yaddo residency fellowship, six grants from the Vermont Arts Council, four grants from the Vermont Community Foundation, and grants from the Berkshire Taconic Foundation and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. She has a master's degree in Architecture from Yale and a BA from Stanford in both Studio Art and International Relations. She is cofounder of the architectural design firm DS Architects (formerly Terra Firma inc). Dworsky has taught architecture and art at Norwich University, Stanford University, the Yale Graduate School of Architecture, Ball State University, and the Yestermorrow Design-Build School. She lives in Montpelier, Vermont with her husband and two daughters.
You can see more of her work at www.alisadworsky.com.
Yellow Barn welcomes soprano Laura Strickling, pianist Liza Stepanova, and Venezuelan-American composer Reinaldo Moya for a residency of love songs honoring turn-of-the-century Spanish composer Enrique Granados (1867-1916). The residency explores two major works: Canciones amatorias, a collection of songs by Granados set to Renaissance Spanish love poems, and Ciudades del Porvenir (Cities from a Future to Come), a newly commissioned Spanish-language song cycle by Moya. On Sunday, December 18, Strickling and Stepanova will culminate their residency with a performance of Granados’ Canciones amatorias and the world premiere of Moya’s Ciudades del Porvenir at Next Stage.
Stepanova met Moya while they were both attending graduate school at Juilliard, and she has performed several of Moya’s works over the past few years.
When Laura and I were considering a commission in connection with the Granados project, his name immediately came to mind. His music is always beautiful and speaks directly to the audience. I recall hearing excerpts from his powerful opera "Generalissimo" at Symphony Space in New York and knew that he could write very effectively for voice. Additionally, I hardly know a more avid book reader than Reinaldo. He has wide-ranging literary tastes, and it was not surprising that he immediately got to work selecting love poetry to match the impact of the Granados verse. I am very much looking forward to working on the result: the songs are gorgeous and I am excited to discuss poetry with Reinaldo that was written in his native language.
Moya writes of his new work:
The song cycle Ciudades del Porvenir (Cities from a Future to Come) consists of a pair of settings of the poetry by the young Mexian poet Yaxkin Melchy. I was attracted to his whimsical, almost surrealistic writings. I could sense that underneath the often sharp contrasts on the surface, there was a real human and moving quality to his poetry. The two songs work as kinds of foils to one another with El Corazón Humano (The Human Heart) being the louder, darker sibling ot the more quietly expansive Ciudades del Porvenir (Cities from a Future to Come).
Last summer we welcomed audiences to the Big Barn with the following message in our season program book. We offer it today in solidarity and as an invitation to listen, thankful that music can speak effortlessly to unassailable truths, both personal and collective.
These are good walls. They are walls that embrace our humanity and resonate with devotion. Within them, worlds of sound are expressed, each one unique as a snowflake, and universal as snowfall. Each of these worlds will be more or less understood, or perhaps not at all, but listening, and wanting to understand, is what we will find here always.
This is the essence of the musician’s relationship with those who purposefully walk into a room for music and have the doors close behind them. With that act, a commitment to listen is made, to voices of unknown origin, religion, political leaning, gender, or sexual orientation. It is understating the case to say that this act is one of acceptance. After all, it is not who the voice belongs to that brings us together; it is what it might express, and what might be deepened in each of us by listening.
In welcoming you to Yellow Barn this season, it does not seem appropriate to comment here on the current wave of political sentiment that aspires to separation and nationalistic power, but that movement has made me acutely aware of how differently we live the evenings we share in this room. I am grateful that Yellow Barn is one of a constellation of places where another ideal is lived; where walls are not an escape or separation, but an invitation to listen far beneath the surface.
—Seth Knopp, Artistic Director
On a stage that unspooled from a converted U-Haul, the Grammy Award-winning Parker Quartet rehearsed in Cambridge Friday.
The 17-foot U-Haul truck sat parked in an empty field, ringed by trees. With the touch of a button, a roof-mounted winch whirred into action, unspooling cable as a fan-shaped stage lowered like a drawbridge from the rear. The U-Haul’s modified rear doors acted as a band shell, flanking the stage to project sound, and a custom-made sail, supported by deep-sea fishing rods, projected as a visor from above.
Fifteen minutes later and the vehicle, dubbed the Music Haul, was a fully functioning stage — a 21st-century gypsy caravan that will bring live performances to the streets and schools of Greater Boston, Sunday through Tuesday.
“It really is more boat than truck,” said Catherine Stephan, executive director of the Yellow Barn music center. “We got to know RV dealerships really well.”
The musical equivalent of a food truck, Music Haul is the brainchild of Yellow Barn, an acclaimed center for chamber music tucked away in the hills of southeastern Vermont.
“It’s supposed to be as close to magic as possible,” said architect John Rossi, one of the traveling venue’s principal designers. “As much as we could take a U-Haul truck and make its transformation seem effortless and smooth, and actually even beautiful, that’s what we wanted to do.”
“We exist in the world as musicians that is in a way so finely controlled and tuned,” said Yellow Barn’s artistic director, Seth Knopp. “Music Haul removes some of the ceremony, which can be a barrier for people who are not often exposed to that world. There’s an element of taking something out of its accustomed place and allowing it to take people by surprise.”
After a pit stop in New Hampshire, the Music Haul spent Friday in Cambridge, where the Grammy Award-winning Parker Quartet used its stage to rehearse Schubert’s devilish Quartet in G Major before the Boston tour kicks off Sunday with concerts scheduled in the South End, Dorchester, and Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park. Later stops include performances at Harvard Square and the State House.
The tour is built around performances at three area schools, where Yellow Barn alumni musicians will perform from the six-person stage as students arrive in the morning, and they will give presentations during recess.
“They’re on their playground,” said Stephan, who added that the kids can decide whether they participate. “They can go play if they want to...and because they all choose to be there you’ve got their attention.”
Yellow Barn alumni will also take the stage at other venues around town, providing open-mic-style performances that include a range of classical music and jazz, with pieces by Claude Debussy, Felix Mendelssohn, György Ligeti, and Iannis Xenakis.
“It’s almost like a microcosm of Yellow Barn,” said Daniel Chong, first violinist in the Parker Quartet. “It’s the care and love for great music and performers, and delivering them to people in a way that’s both surprising and engaging.”
Founded in 1969 by cellist David Wells and his wife, pianist Janet Wells, Yellow Barn hosts scores of musicians each summer at its Vermont campus, where they practice, share ideas, and perform about 20 concerts over a five-week season at their primary music hall, Big Barn, in Putney. The music center, which shares a campus with the Greenwood School, also offers artist residencies and a young artists program.
Stephan said the Music Haul was an extension of Yellow Barn’s founding ethos.
“The mission is the same,” she said, adding that the $90,000 project was paid for in part by a Fresh Sound Foundation grant. “Either you know something about the music walking in, or you don’t. Either way, we want to give people a different type of experience.”
In designing the Music Haul, Rossi and his team divided the truck’s storage area into two parts, transforming the fore section into a greenroom with windows, seating for six, and a table, while the aft portion stores instruments and lighting, converting to a curtained area during performances.
“The truck becomes the backstage,” said Rossi, who worked on the project with boat designer Bill Lincoln. “The drive has always been to simplify, simplify, simplify.”
Rossi, whose business, Visible Good, designs crates that unfold to become emergency relief structures for disaster areas, said Music Haul shares certain design elements with his boxed buildings, which are known as Rapid Deployment Modules.
“The crazy little disaster-relief military medical shelter is the thing that probably had the most influence on this, versus any architecture with a capital ‘A,’ ” Rossi said.
Knopp said when it comes to Music Haul, which is also equipped with marine speakers to blast Yellow Barn recordings en route, a key element is in the wonderment afforded by surprise.
“Because it’s unexpected, people will not have preconceptions, and they won’t feel the fear of ignorance in the face of an experience they’ve never had before,” he said. “Without that expectation, you have a kind of vulnerability, an openness, that one needs to listen in the best possible way.”
David Weininger writes for The Boston Globe:
To a degree unusual among high-caliber gatherings, Vermont’s Yellow Barn festival insists on the centrality of the contemporary in the summer music landscape. Of crucial significance is its annual composer residency, a part of the Yellow Barn tradition that has, in recent years, included Philippe Hersant, Brett Dean, and, most recently, Jörg Widmann.
The idea extends beyond simply programming a large fraction of one composer’s oeuvre. As important is the opportunity created to put more familiar repertoire in dialogue with something seemingly alien, thus throwing new light on both.“When one person’s language and musical presence gets into the groundwater of a place,” said artistic director Seth Knopp in a recent interview, “it really does inform the place, and all of the music that’s being worked on.”
This year’s festival has upped the ante by bringing to Yellow Barn’s idyllic environs a composer both distinguished and largely unknown in this country. Stefano Gervasoni, 54, studied with several masters of European modernism, among them Luigi Nono, Helmut Lachenmann, and György Ligeti. Yet though he holds academic positions at the prestigious Paris Conservatory and in his native Bergamo, Italy, his music is largely a cipher in the US. Yellow Barn’s Composer Portrait concert (Aug. 2) offers a rare opportunity to hear a full evening of his works. Further compositions will be distributed through the concerts that follow, in the company of pieces by Mozart, Schubert, Schoenberg, and Fauré, among others.
Knopp, speaking from the festival’s home in Putney, said that he’d heard about Gervasoni’s music from percussionist Eduardo Leandro, a Yellow Barn faculty member since 2010. Listening to a selection of his works piqued Knopp’s curiosity, though he wondered if it was just personal interest rather than something on which to base an entire residency. Then he discovered that while Gervasoni may not have established a huge profile in America, “many of the young participants revere him.”
How to begin talking about such unfamiliar fare? One could start with Gervasoni’s relationship to the traditions that he sees himself standing both within and outside of. Two works to be performed at Yellow Barn give some indication of this complex interaction: “descdesesasf,” a 1995 string trio, and “Luce ignota della sera,” a short piece for piano and electronics composed in 2015.
Both are homages to Schumann, bringing his music into a creative counterpoint with other artists. Material for the trio is derived from a motif in one of Schumann’s “Fantasiestücke.” At one point the music stops so that the three musicians can quietly recite “Aschenglorie,” a grimly un-nerving late poem by Paul Celan. “Luce ignota” integrates a four-hand piece by Schumann with an excerpt from Gervasoni’s “Prédicatif,” itself a homage to Nono. The electronics confer on this strange meeting a halo both enticing and unsettling, as if the encounter were recalibrating the internal vibrations of Gervasoni’s musical sources, producing what note the composer in a program note calls “scraps of sound that unite and become confused, in a world heard microscopically, ideally beyond reality.”
Those words, though intended to describe “Luce ignota,” could also describe the artistic permeation that occurs in “descdesesasf.” They also point, albeit in an indirect way, to an important characteristic of Gervasoni’s work more generally. The sounds he uses bear at least a family resemblance to those of other composers, especially Lachenmann. Yet his works also have an airiness, a sense of breath and even light, that sets them apart from his mentors’ more frictional creations.
“There’s a kind of density to Gervasoni’s music,” Knopp put it. “Not so much texturally, but it gives me the feeling of very dense music that has experienced the big bang. You have things that are floating away from each other that once belonged together. And he has a way about writing where you feel there’s a cohesion, always, in spite of that.
“There is a lyricism that’s there, even in a single sound,” he said elsewhere. “The difficulty in realizing what he wants is the separation, the space between things, and you have to be able to hear from very high up. It’s like looking at the earth from outer space.”
At one point during the conversation Knopp mentioned that he had been “talking around” Gervasoni’s music, and that he looked forward to his residency in large part because that, and that alone, would be his chance to truly know it.
“I wish I could tell you more about it,” he said. “But I kind of feel like to know him, you have to hear more of it in person. There are other composers where you can tell about the piece through a performance that may or may not be doing it justice. But his music is very much performance dependent. It’s so refined and difficult enough that it really depends on us to do well by it.”