Eric Nathan on "Some Favored Nook"

Monday, October 9, 2017

Some Favored Nook live recording in Putney (In front, left to right: Jessica Rivera, Andrew Garland, Molly Morkoski, Eric Nathan)

Composer Eric Nathan reflects on his September 2017 Artist Residency, Some Favored Nook, at Yellow Barn:

Soprano Jessica Rivera, baritone Andrew Garland, pianist Molly Morkoski and I recently completed an Artist Residency at Yellow Barn to workshop and record my new 45-minute dramatic cycle, “Some Favored Nook,” based on texts by Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, adapted by librettist Mark Campbell.

Yellow Barn afforded us an invaluable opportunity to have an intense period of uninterrupted time over the course of a few days to rehearse and workshop the piece, and then record it in front of a live audience as part of a private recording session at Executive Director Catherine Stephan’s house. While we were in-residence we also had wonderful opportunities to engage with students and faculty at the Greenwood School and with Yellow Barn supporters in the post-recording session Q&A. Both chances to engage with the community were especially valuable to me as a composer, because it allowed me to hear directly from the audiences how the music, performances and subject matter made them think and feel.

“Some Favored Nook” takes place in Civil War-era America and is inspired by the significant correspondence between an unlikely pair: Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Dickinson was practically unknown during her day but is now one of the world’s most widely read poets, and Higginson was a figure who loomed large in literary and political spheres of his time, but who is now relatively forgotten. My work focuses on Dickinson's private struggle as women poet in a patriarchal society and Higginson's public struggles for women’s rights, women poets, and the abolition of slavery. I place Dickinson and Higginson's writings in the context of the Civil War and society of the time, and uses the texts as a lens to view social, political and cultural issues of this early chapter in American history – civil rights, women's rights, the effects of war, as well as many of the themes that fill Dickinson's poetry, such as love and death – all issues that are as relevant today as they were in Dickinson’s time.

Dickinson and Higginson’s correspondence spanned twenty-four years and offers an intimate look into Dickinson’s private world as well as to Higginson’s involvement in major social and political issues of the day, as the commanding officer of the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first black regiment in the Civil War. Higginson was also a noted supporter of women poets, and published the first collection of Dickinson’s poetry after her death. I set excerpts from Dickinson’s letters and poems she sent to Higginson, but as many of Higginson’s letters to her are lost, Higginson’s texts are set from his own essays as well as diaries from his “Army Life in a Black Regiment.”

This project has been a number of years in the making. It began as a proposal for my Rome Prize fellowship at the American Academy in Rome in 2013-14. While I was in Rome, I assembled texts by Dickinson and Higginson. A subsequent visit to Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst sparked the initial measures of my piece, after I experienced the sense of space and light in Dickinson’s room. However, it was not until 2016 when the librettist Mark Campbell molded the texts into a compelling dramatic and thematic arc that ideas for my musical work began to fully take shape. I began composing in earnest in January 2017 during a residency at Copland House in Cortlandt Manor, where I lived and composed for three weeks in composer Aaron Copland’s home. It was incredibly humbling and inspiring to write music in Copland’s house, especially since his settings of Dickinson’s poetry in his “Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson” remain some of the most treasured and iconic musical settings of her poetry. I completed my work in July 2017, back at the American Academy in Rome as part of a Visiting Artist residency.  

For our residency at Yellow Barn, our goals were to workshop, rehearse and record “Some Favored Nook,” so that we could have documentation to entice presenters to sponsor the official world premiere and a subsequent multi-city tour in 2018-19 and/or 2019-20. Yellow Barn has been so supportive of this project and arranged for the work to be professionally video and audio recorded. The Brown Arts Initiative was also very helpful in making this workshop possible through a Research and Development Grant.

Our rehearsal process at Yellow Barn was incredibly collaborative. We experimented with various parameters of the text setting and performance techniques. For instance, during one rehearsal Molly Morkoski suggested we have Jessica Rivera sing a section of the music directly into the piano, to create an otherworldly resonance. I had marked this section “distantly” in the score, but this new technique brought out other aspects in the music that arose from our discussions of the dramatic unfolding of the work, and so we decided to keep this technique in the performance. It is at this moment that Dickinson sings her poem, “A Death blow is a Life blow to some,” to the tune of “America,” after Higginson has recited phrases from his diary recounting attending to wounded soldiers after a battle. Throughout the entire rehearsal process, we watched the characters of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson come to life, and how their conscious and unconscious emotional states could be translated from the score into dramatic performance.

The chances to engage with the Yellow Barn community were for me some of the most meaningful experiences of the week. The recording session took place in the intimate setting of a living room, and this intimacy combined with the inquisitiveness of the Yellow Barn audience fostered a remarkable discussion. Audience members shared how the performance and story affected them personally, and their questions and my colleagues’ responses helped me see our work in new light. Similarly, I was excited to hear the imaginative responses from students as they described the worlds and ideas that the musical motives conjured in their minds.

The entire week residency was a beautiful testament to the communicative power of music. We commune with music to share ideas and emotions and reflect on stories of the past and present. In such a divisive time, it was nourishing to be reminded of the unifying power of music, especially on such a small and personal scale, and how the exchange of ideas helps us see and understand our world.


This project has been made possible, in part, by the Brown Arts Initiative.

Music No Boundaries: Midcoast Maine

Tuesday, September 19, 2017


September 13-19, 2017

Following its first tour of New York City, Yellow Barn Music Haul brought the national touring program "Music No Boundaries" to five area schools (St. George School, South Elementary School, Gilford Butler/Owl’s Head School, Edna Drinkwater School, and Lincoln Academy), as well as the Coastal Maine Reentry Program, Damariscotta-Newcastle ArtWalk, Bremen Public Library/Bremen Town Center, and the Farnsworth Museum. After six days in Maine, Yellow Barn Music Haul stopped in Boston on the way home, returning to the Epiphany School in Dorchester, and giving a sidewalk performance in Boston's South End.

Locations and Partners

For complete tour and program information, go to

South Elementary School, Rockland, ME

Edna Drinkwater School, Northport, ME

Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center Farm, Belfast/Swanville, ME

St. George School, St. George, ME

Lincoln Academy, Newcastle, ME

Owls Head School, South Thomaston, ME

Damariscotta-Newcastle ArtWalk, Damariscotta, ME

Bremen Public Library, Bremen, ME

Bremen Town Center, Bremen, ME

Farnsworth Museum, Rockland, ME

Boston Extension—Epiphany School, Dorchester, MA

Boston Extension—Shawmut Ave. at W. Concord St., Boston, MA


Telegraph String Quartet

Greg Beyer, percussion

Seth Knopp, piano

Sound Engineer: Dev Ray

Stage Managers: Michael Bradley Cohen and Christopher Grant

Jörg Widmann at the Nasher

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Scott Cantrell, special contributor and former classical music critic for the Dallas Morning News, reviews "Jörg Widmann at the Nasher" from the Nasher Sculpture Center's Soundings series:

You'd be hard-pressed to outdo the Nasher Sculpture Center's Soundings series for the most provocative classical-music programs in the area. The formula of setting cutting-edge contemporary music in contexts of older fare was certainly in evidence Sunday evening.

This was the last of three concerts over the weekend featuring the 43-year-old German composer and clarinetist Jörg Widmann. A Friday concert displayed his avant-garde virtuosity on the clarinet; Saturday's program was devoted to his complete string quartets.

On Sunday, baritone William Sharp and pianist and Soundings artistic director Seth Knopp gave the North American premiere of Widmann's 4-year-old song cycle Das heisse Herz (The Fiery Heart). In the first half, Robert Schumann's 1840 song cycle Dichterliebe (Poet's Love) proved a revelatory prelude. Separated by 173 years, the two works illuminated each other.

To words by the poet Heinrich Heine, the Schumann cycle is all about lost love. Words and music explore turbulent emotions stirred up by rejection: sentimentality, heartsickness, defiance, fury and sarcasm. Dreams mix with reality. 

Sharp made this a deeply personal experience, coloring and texturing his well-seasoned baritone with drama and sensitivity.  As appropriate to both words and music, there were sounds alternately rich, brazen and gently insinuated. Knopp's pianism matched Sharp's expressivity. The compact, low-ceilinged auditorium on the Nasher's lower level has oppressed some music, but here it supplied apt salon-like intimacy. 

The piano introduction to Widmann's cycle almost sounded like an echo, subtly distorted, of the opening of Dichterliebe.  One of the songs, "Hab' ein Ringelein am Finger" ("I Have a Ring on My Finger"), evoked associations with a parallel song in Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben. "Liebeslied" ("Love Song") suggested the sardonic tone of Kurt Weill; "Das Fraulein stand am Meere" ("The Girl Stood by the Sea") was set as an irreverent waltz.

Widmann's cycle sets texts from a variety of sources — including Heine — but as with Dichterliebe, the theme is lost love. Here, though, the tone ventures more boldly into irony, sarcasm and even surrealism. Surprisingly, perhaps, the vocal writing is anything but the far-flung spasms of much contemporary European work. No, it has a naturalness of pitch and shape. Although the piano part incorporates angry bass clusters and glinting attacks at the top of the keyboard, it also includes flowing patches not that distant from, yes, Schumann.

If postmodernism is defined by allusions to earlier art, Das heisse Herz is postmodern. It was certainly a deeply engaging experience Sunday evening, unsettling in a powerful and artistically valid way. Sharp brought to it every manner of vocal nuance, but with a core of tonal beauty, even adding a good deal of physicality. Again, Knopp was an incisive and dramatic collaborator. I was glad to be there.

Yellow Barn Music Haul at the Brattleboro Retreat

Monday, July 24, 2017

Last summer, Yellow Barn Music Haul visited the Brattleboro Retreat, the first facility for the care of the mentally ill in Vermont, and one of the first ten private psychiatric hospitals in the United States, to bring chamber music to their community. The first performance was geared towards Retreat patients from their Elementary School and Early Education programs, and the second towards all ages. With about 125 children and staff present at both performances, the excitement and connection between musicians and audience was palpable.

During the final week of the festival, Yellow Barn was honored to welcome Retreat employees to the Big Barn for two Retreat Nights, offering them complimentary tickets and thanking them from the stage. Over the course of the two concerts, Retreat employees and their families were able to experience more music from percussionist Sam Um and the Omer Quartet, who had performed at the Retreat. 

Konstantin von Krusenstiern, VP of Development and Communications at the Retreat, wrote the following letter of support for the partnership:

Dear Yellow Barn:

On behalf of everyone at the Brattleboro Retreat, thank you for coming to our campus with the Music Haul to perform for our patients and staff. We are also grateful for the complimentary tickets that you provided for folks to attend concerts at your venue in Putney. Approximately 250 individuals at the Brattleboro Retreat benefited from your programming this summer.

All of the concerts were truly fabulous! The children and adolescents in our residential and day programs were totally captivated by the performances. It was also wonderful to see so many of the patients ask lots of questions during the Q&A sessions after the shows. For many of the kids, this was the first time they had ever seen such concerts, and they were totally engaged!

The therapeutic benefit of the concerts was also apparent and without a doubt a wonderful experience for our patients on in their path to recovery. I have enclosed some letters and drawings from some of the children expressing their thanks to Yellow Barn expressing their thanks for the concerts.

The Brattleboro Retreat is exceedingly grateful for our partnership with Yellow Barn and we look forward to collaborating with you again in the future.


Konstantin von Krusenstiern
Vice President Development and Communications 

Thank you to the Thomas Thompson Foundation for helping to make this collaboration possible, and to the Brattleboro Retreat for welcoming us to their campus and for being a fantastic audience.

"Now This is Barnstorming"

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

On Saturday, May 27, 2017, the New York Times Arts Section featured Yellow Barn Music Haul with a banner headline and a half-page spread during "Music No Boundaries: NYC". Between May 24 and June 1 over 80 Yellow Barn musicians donated performances for 20 concerts across four boroughs of the city.

Bach out of the back of a converted U-Haul: That's the idea behind Yellow Barn Music Haul, the let's-put-on-a-show mobile unit of Yellow Barn, a chamber-music center based in Putney, Vt. Through Thursday, the truck is trundling around New York, with over 80 musicians (including the violinist Alexi Kenney, shown here on Friday morning in Chelsea) deployed for 20 outdoor performances. The programs are all different, ranging over Beethoven, Bloch, Britten and Berio; Sciarrino rubs elbows with Paganini. The full schedule is at

"Yellow Barn: Taking it to the Streets"

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

David Weinenger, who writes a Classical Notes column for the Boston Globe, interviews Yellow Barn's Artistic Director Seth Knopp and Executive Director Catherine Stephan about Music Haul's "Music No Boundaries: NYC" tour for The Log Journal.

Yellow Barn, the famously intrepid summer chamber music festival based in Putney, Vermont, is raising the concept of “taking the show on the road” to a new level. In October 2015 the center introduced Music Haul, a mobile stage in the back of a truck, which allows Yellow Barn’s musicians to perform virtually anywhere the vehicle can travel.

Having already visited Boston, Baltimore, and Dallas, Music Haul now will undertake its most ambitious voyage yet: “Music No Boundaries: NYC,” a nine-day residency featuring performances in four New York City boroughs, starting at noon on May 24. The itinerary includes a long list of neighborhood parks, plazas… even a Bronx street corner that Yellow Barn artistic director Seth Knopp remembers as being particularly vital.

A dizzying array of musicians, including prominent instrumentalists, vocalists, and ensembles, are volunteering their time and services for the tour. This allowed Knopp to program performances that have the depth and experimental richness familiar from the festival’s summer concerts. The tour will include one indoor performance, at National Sawdust on May 28: a program that includes a rare performance of Erwin Schulhoff’s Sonata Erotica for solo female voice.

Knopp and Yellow Barn managing director Catherine Stephan spoke to The Log Journal about the tour, its benefits and potential pitfalls, and what you might get from a chance encounter with music on a New York street.

THE LOG JOURNAL: What made you decide that Yellow Barn needed a traveling stage?
SETH KNOPP: I was actually meeting with a piano technician right next to Carnegie Hall – I was meeting them to look at pianos for the summer [festival]. I got there around 7:30 in the morning, and it was really busy, as it always is in that part of town. The door was open, and the tuner was doing the usual one note, over and over again. And I noticed that, inevitably, people would stop in their tracks and peer in to see what was going on, simply because there was a sound they didn’t expect to be hearing.

I thought that was kind of interesting, because we walk by a lot of things in our lives that are a lot more interesting than someone plunking an A over and over again. And I thought, if you could take that moment of interest and curiosity, and then in the next minute have something with artistic intentions, I wonder if you could capture somebody’s attention in a way that it’s without planning, without any kind of anticipation? They would just come upon something, and it would capture their interest.

It was just the germ of an idea. And we were having another conversation about marketing, and we were having a conversation about having an ice cream truck that would go around playing recordings of Yellow Barn music, luring people back to our hall. And then the conversation became more about, this is a big-enough undertaking that it needs to have something to do with our fundamental reason for existence. So live music was introduced. And actually, we got to an idea that feels like a shared idea, because so many people have had the idea of having a traveling stage.

Getting to the reality of Music Haul… that was a little more complicated. [laughs]

(Iaritza Menjivar)

Where’d the idea for this sort of mammoth mobile residency come from?

KNOPP: I think our thought at the beginning was that we wanted to reach a lot of people – to bring music to as many people as possible, and to as many kinds of neighborhoods as possible. The idea of Music Haul is not based on the idea that you expose someone to something, and then they’ll seek out the experience in a “real hall.” We wanted to make this feel like the venue was attractive enough.

In a way, the scope of where we’re going and the kind of repertoire we’re doing was really based on an email I sent out at the very beginning, even before we had an idea of how much we were going to do, to the troupe of YB musicians that have been formed over years and years of the summer festival, and also the residencies that we have during the year.

That was the “this is what we’re doing, are you interested in donating your time and services” email
KNOPP: Exactly. And there was such an overwhelming response – we have 76 musicians participating. I’ll give you one example: [soprano] Lucy Shelton said, “I’m in town that week, I want to do as much of this as possible.” People kind of fell in love with the idea, which was a deeply satisfying thing, and made me so proud to be part of a collection of people that are so much about the communicating of what they do that the contractual element doesn’t even come into play for them. We even have people traveling from other cities to do this. And then the inspiration kicked in: “Look at all the ingredients we have to cook with!” There were just so many different places that we wanted to go.

One of our experiences with Music Haul has been that in terms of being exposed to music, that kind of experience is absolutely nondenominational and ethnicity-blind. You could be in one neighborhood that looks one way, and the same number of people stop to listen as you’d have in another neighborhood. It simply doesn’t matter what the demographics are. It’s as if there is something at the DNA level in every human being that actually overrides anything more superficial. And that’s a very moving thing to see happen.

You could be in one neighborhood that looks one way, and the same number of people stop to listen as you’d have in another neighborhood. It simply doesn’t matter what the demographics are. It’s as if there is something at the DNA level in every human being that actually overrides anything more superficial.

Give me a glimpse into the programming process. How did you match up repertoire with locations?
KNOPP: There were partnerships that were formed from every-which direction. Some of them came from a certain location: Symphony Space, Carnegie Hall. Some of them from the fact that we wanted to have a certain program at a place that seemed appropriate. There’s a children’s museum of art and storytelling that we wanted to have because it would be the perfect place for that program. So then we had to go and look at the location and see if it was physically possible for Music Haul to come and unfold the stage, and comfortable for people to come and listen.

This was a very different programming experience for me. I think Catherine wore out a pair of shoes going to places, and knows New York better than some New Yorkers. We’re in Brooklyn for eight hours on the 27th for Smorgasbord Saturdays – that was a place I think a couple of our musicians had suggested. So we had input from a lot of different places.

​(Iaritza Menjivar)

What kind of hazards are there to planning and executing an undertaking like this, to make it fulfilling for both players and listeners?
KNOPP: In terms of the pitfalls, the practicality, we feel that we [directors] need to stay at a distance from Music Haul. Especially when it’s not live musicians, we’re just playing off the speakers, there’s this thought that people on the street are used to being stopped, people trying to sell them something… If we distance ourselves from the truck, so people have no idea that it belongs to us, they are much more likely to stop and listen and have their own experience.

The same thing is true with live musicians. We feel like this truck, in a way, takes the presenter out of the middle, and allows the musicians who are playing to have direct relationships with the audience. And it’s also because the audience can leave at any point – it’s completely up to them. They can be self-selecting, which means it’s truly their experience. They decide to stay because of what they hear, not because of what they expect to hear. And people who wouldn’t ordinarily stop for this because they might be fearful of going someplace they’ve never gone before, or not understanding the protocol, or even know when it begins or ends – that whole fear is taken away.

Then there are all the physical things we have to deal with when we’re scoping out things, which Catherine knows a lot about…

CATHERINE STEPHAN: For a while when we were scouting, I was literally always looking at the ground: Are there potholes here? Is there a bench that’s going to mean we can’t open the door? I kept forgetting to look up for trees, which would interfere with the canopy. [Laughs] The mental checklist when you’re driving around and looking for possibilities has definitely grown over time.

The truck has a full-stage version and a half-stage version, which allows us to tuck into a curb lane. So, for example, a lot of our New York City street permits are just to be in the curb lane somewhere. And then we can do the full-stage version in plazas and parks and playgrounds.

One thing that really stands out in the programming is the chance to hear Tony Arnold sing Schulhoff’s Sonata Erotica at National Sawdust.
KNOPP: You’ve hit on the one indoor performance that we’re doing. We wanted to do one indoor performance, because we wanted people to understand the fundamental essence of Yellow Barn. That’s a program that we did, I think, two years ago, with a little bit of tweaking.

Personally, I’ll tell you that that piece – from a programming aspect, this tour aside – has been something that I’ve been thinking about for a very long time. On the surface of it, that piece was meant by Schulhoff to be a cabaret piece – on the front of the score he writes, “For Men Only.” It’s a difficult piece to program, not for reasons that the audience would be somehow scandalized or uncomfortable, but more, how do you place it in the program, other than having it be a sort of talent-show program with one thing after the next? You put it in there for the thrill of it. And I’d always wanted to find a way of doing it that had another meaning.

So it’s set in this way that I hope makes it more about what we’ve lost when we lose the people that we lose in these tragedies. It’s with Reich and Wagner, and it’s meant to have kind of a different impact.

What would you want a listener to take away from the experience of a Music Haul performance, whether they stop and listen for five minutes or two hours?
KNOPP: Music is invisible, and it can bring something beautiful to an inner city neighborhood, it can bring a soul to a downtown financial district. It can bring us to what most makes us human – all in a moment, all in a flash of sound. And I kind of feel that to hear music in that way can remind us that what we can see and touch and name is just a very small part of our world. It has power in that moment to rebuild us, inside and out.

I think it’s a wonderful thing to witness how music, in a way, needs no explaining. And hopefully, what they’ll come away with is just having had an experience that somehow deepens them, or it changes their day, their moment, and it puts them in touch with something that wasn’t there a moment ago. It’s a pretty simple thing, but for me it’s an important one.

The Yellow Barn Music Haul visits New York City May 24-June 1; see for complete, up-to-the-minute listings and advisories.