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MUSIC REVIEW

Revolution in reverse, under cool Vt. skies

Clockwise from left: David Wells (left), founding director of the Yellow Barn Music School and Festival, talks to Seth Knopp, artistic director; Sophie Heaton plays the viola; the quartet of (from left) Curtis Macomber, Jonathan Lewis, Roger Tapping, and Francesca Anderegg. Clockwise from left: David Wells (left), founding director of the Yellow Barn Music School and Festival, talks to Seth Knopp, artistic director; Sophie Heaton plays the viola; the quartet of (from left) Curtis Macomber, Jonathan Lewis, Roger Tapping, and Francesca Anderegg. (Photos By Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / August 7, 2009

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PUTNEY, Vt. - The blueberries picked daily for intermission tasted a bit more tart this summer, and the solar cells on top of the practice rooms haven’t been as busy as many might wish. But a visit on Tuesday night to the Yellow Barn Music School and Festival suggested that this intimate Vermont chamber music retreat is thriving in its 40th season. The music-making is vibrant, audience attendance is up, and this hybrid festival and professional training program has reached an internal milestone of being able to invite all of its young musicians to participate free of charge.

Yellow Barn, which concludes its summer with three concerts this weekend, was founded four decades ago by the New York cellist David Wells, and it’s currently under the artistic directorship of Seth Knopp, the pianist of the Peabody Trio. I asked one string player in his fourth year what kept him coming back, and his answer was simple: programming. That’s what initially caught my eye, as well.

Knopp has a gift for building concerts that stroll cheerfully across the centuries, and it’s as if he never got the memo that contemporary music is supposed to be box-office poison. At Yellow Barn, gnarly avant-garde works are taken out of chilly isolation and invited to mingle with feel-good blockbusters of Romantic chamber music. And as demonstrated by Tuesday’s program, both parties seem to benefit from each other’s presence.

This particular concert offered a bit of musical revolution in reverse, opening with Helmut Lachenmann’s “Trio Fluido,’’ a daunting work from 1966-67 that would typically be the province of crack new-music groups, and ending with Brahms’ sumptuous G-major String Quintet, a cornerstone of the mainstream chamber music literature. Of crucial importance is that Yellow Barn has apparently earned the basic trust of its audiences, who seem to arrive ready and eager to hear at least some music that they do not already know. How else to explain the rapt silence with which this crowd listened as clarinetist Alicia Lee, violist Sophie Heaton, and percussionist Ian Antonio plunged into Lachenmann’s work, full of sharp-edged instrumental banter played out in a rush of what can seem like dissociated jabs, rustles, shrieks, and sighs. The musicians wrestled valiantly with this brutally challenging score.

And of course, the entirety of an evening’s program is present even when the works are silently awaiting their turn. In that spirit, knowing that the Brahms Quintet was hovering just beyond intermission encouraged one to listen for the distant Romantic echoes that can still be heard in Lachenmann’s music despite his audacious attempts to sever ties to music’s past.

Before the Brahms arrived, however, a quartet (Curtis Macomber and Francesca Anderegg, violins; Roger Tapping, viola; and Jonathan Lewis, cello) that included two faculty members gave a pointed, vigorous reading of Szymanowski’s Second Quartet, a rarely played interwar piece full of both coolly glittering sonorities and white heat. The baritone William Sharp, partnered by pianist Julio Elizalde, also performed the brief “Kaddisch’’ from Ravel’s “Deux Melodies Hebraiques.’’ Sharp sang with rich interiority and a tone that seemed deftly poised between the world of art song and the Jewish liturgical tradition of chazzanut.

When the Brahms finally arrived, a bearhug of a piece full of surging alto-rich sonorities, it was all the more rewarding for having been earned and also tethered to a more contemporary musical world. The five talented young players (Tessa Lark and Elissa Cassini, violins; Lisa Steltenpohl and Itamar Ringel, violas; Alice Yoo, cello) gave it a wonderfully gutsy, impassioned reading. Sure, this account had room to grow, by maintaining tension more consistently to the very end of phrases or by harnessing the rhythmic snap of various syncopations, but ultimately its sheer exuberance and rhapsodic energy made this performance irresistible.

A contented audience recalled the players many times, and then streamed out into the cool Vermont night. The 2 1/2-hour drive back to Boston seemed a modest price for one of the more enjoyable concerts of the summer.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

YELLOW BARN MUSIC SCHOOL AND FESTIVAL In Putney, Vt., Tuesday night

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