A barn in a New England town with a population of less than 3,000 might not be a place where one would readily expect to find remarkable musicianship, at least not in the tradition of European concert music, much less daring programming. But inside that barn, about a mile from the Connecticut River, surprises lie – first and foremost being a carpeted and acoustically pristine interior (and quietly air conditioned, a definite plus on a 30°C July evening). The room and the organization are host to a summer series of performances that this year includes works by the likes of Bach and Beethoven intermingled with John Cage, Sofia Gubaidulina and many more, as well as a Jörg Widmann residency and a Kim Kashkashian master class for the students who have been accepted to spend the summer in this rustic and rural town. The Yellow Barn in Putney, Vermont, it would seem, has been committed to such programming for quite some time, at least as evidenced by this 19 July concert midway through their 50th anniversary season

William Sharp, baritone © Zachary Stephens
William Sharp, baritone
© Zachary Stephens

Although carpet wood and plaster, the room is not forgiving of much noise – programs rustling or high heels across the stage floor – which meant that the acoustics were almost impossibly bright for the opening piece, with violin and viola screaming like the shower scene in Psycho and cello and bassoon in their full sonorities. Kalevi Aho's 1977 Quintet for bassoon and string quartet was thrilling and comical, complex yet ebullient, and relentlessly exquisite. Bassoonist Yen-Chen Wu flew through her lines with precision and exquisite timing, down to an extended unaccompanied solo near the end that managed to seem unlikely even within a piece that was unlikely from the beginning. At times it recalled not just Strauss and Bernard Hermann but also Shostakovich, yet never sounded like pastiche or (horror of horrors) post-modernity. Rather, it was complicated in the ways that the varieties of emotions and events in a given day can be, perhaps not contradictory, but complicated. At nearly three quarters of an hour, it felt as if it could have been the whole of the evening.

But the whole of the evening it was not. Yellow Barn is known not just for bold and broad-ranging but also anything but brief programming. Hans Werner Henze's 1963 Being Beauteous, for soprano, harp and four cellos was another exciting endeavor, with coloratura Rachel Schutz drifting above and beyond the ensemble, which in turn wove circles around her, often following parallel lines into the upper register and back down again. The music may not have reached the full gravitas of the Rimbaud verse it employed (“The mortal hissing and the raucous music, which the world far behind us, hurls on our mother of beauty”), but it wasn't terribly far from it either. A dramatic and beautiful coda for the Aho and to end the first half.

After a first half of such contemporary drama, there was nowhere to go but backwards, with Gabriel Fauré and Johann Sebastian Bach. Fauré's Piano Quartet no.2 in G minor exploded off the stage in the small room. Lines moved fluidly across the strings, sometimes surprising in intensity and sheer volume, while pianist Emely Phelps was steadfast, keeping the ornamentation, tastefully and thankfully, underplayed.

The Fauré, too, was anything but short, so two hours and 20 minutes into the evening, it was time to suspend time with the wonders of Bach. The bass aria from his Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem stilled the room. Baritone William Sharp – with a small ensemble of oboe, three violins, cello, contrabass and chamber organ – hovered somewhere between articulate and dreamlike, and oboist Mark Hill gave it a reserved elegance. If only they'd played the whole enchilada of Bach's cantata.

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