Yellow Barn, in the town of Putney, Vermont, (population 2,702) wasn't much more than a dream in the summer of 1969. The organization – founded by cellist David Wells and pianist Janet Wells – was putting on its first season of concerts when, on 20 July of that year, the musicians gathered in their barn to witness history in the making as Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon.

Fifty years later, the moon is still in the sky and Yellow Barn is still hosting an annual summer series of contemporary and classical composition, performed by resident students from 22 to 84 years of age, joined by invited guests. And on the evening of 20 July, they presented a program of compositions looking toward the night sky.

Lucy Shelton
© Michael Hanish

Although not much was said from the stage to tie the music presented with the Apollo anniversary, Harvard University science professor Avi Loeb, founder of the Black Hole Initiative, gave a talk about the moon landing and the future of space travel at the nearby public library before the concert and introduced the second half of the program. A tapestry eight or 10 feet in length hung from the side of the stage, depicting the phases of the moon and listing the evening's works: Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, George Crumb's Makrocosmos II, Harrison Birtwistle's Crescent Moon over the Irrational, and songs by Haydn and the Beatles.

The Birtwistle began the evening, but only after a recording of Tony Bennett singing Fly Me to the Moon played through the PA while the musicians sat patiently. Gentle clarinet lines came forth as the song faded, played by Yasmina Spiegelberg and promptly repeated in a pelting peal, soon followed by a dramatic burst from the rest of the ensemble (two violins, viola, cello, harp and flute). It bounced and then gelled and just as easily disappeared, a gorgeous opener, both floating in space and presaging the 12-tone song cycle that was to come.

Another set of musicians then entered from the back. Soprano Lucy Shelton (who graduated from the nearby secondary Putney School in 1961) carried a miniature Pierrot Lunaire doll on a little rattan chair and carefully arranged it on a small table before taking her own seat: a high-back chair, nearly a throne, in front of the piano and flanked by the rest of the ensemble. She delivered Albert Giraud's verses like a grande dame storyteller with every bit of drama the text deserves; her “Gallows Song” carried a particularly charming, nasty lilt. The ensemble, however, seemed hesitant at first, beginning the first few sections unnecessarily deferential where neither Schoenberg nor Shelton needed room left for them. The players regrouped, however, and by midpoint had found their footing. The winds especially (Spiegelberg and flutist Rosie Gallagher) provided strong second voices for Schoenberg’s atonal songs.

Recordings of the moon landing began the second half, followed by a comic operetta about a lunar mission by a lovelorn astronomer composed some 200 years prior. Il mondo della luna (The world of the Moon), composed by Haydn and Baldassare Galuppi to a libretto by Carlo Goldoni, was (of course) a light and silly affair, bringing Shelton back to the stage along with the beatific baritone William Sharp. The frivolity cleared the ears for the very different plunge into lunacy and the mysteries of the moon that was to follow.

Crumb's Makrokosmos II, composed in 1973, is a set of 12 solos and duos (in traditional and graphic notation) for amplified, prepared piano following the signs of the zodiac, and is one of four of Crumb's Makrokosmos books. This realization employed two pianos and six pianists in rotation, along with a whistler, played under bright lights, any particles of artificially cooled air having long since dissipated. It was stark and trying, like an aural mirage; the stars, in a sense, were the pianos themselves. In plunks and whispers and crescendos ramping to nothing, the alien soundscapes were delivered by musicians almost incidental to the cosmos of sound. The alternating of voices, however, as different players were called upon to provide hushed and murmured vocalisations, lent to a sense of expansiveness, of the night sky, the universe, of something bigger than the room we were in.

The reward for making it through Crumb's cosmos was a quick Beatles song. Longtime Yellow Barn composer Stephen Coxe arranged John Lennon’s Across the Universe for piano and baritone, given voice and sensibility by Sharp's placid baritone. Coxe stuck to the vocal melody and gave it a sparse chordal background, beautifully played by Alice Chenyang Xu. It wasn’t as good as the Beatles but it was better than Bowie’s and in any event brought us all back to Earth.