MASS MoCA Keeps It Fresh With Festivals…Bluegrass and Otherwise
Fans gather at the 2013 FreshGrass festival. Photo: Danielle Poulin
By Jeremy D. Goodwin
So it came as no surprise when the institution announced it was converting another old factory building into a gallery dedicated to the large-scale work of German artist Anselm Kiefer, including a sculpture made from undulating waves of jagged concrete.
But a bluegrass festival? That was a bit of a surprise when FreshGrass debuted in September of 2011. Yet the growing success of the event, in tandem with the much higher-profile Wilco bonanza known as the Solid Sound Festival, is living proof that this museum has become a first-class performance venue. And its specialty is exceedingly well-run festivals.
Joe Thompson has led MASS MoCA toward a new specialty — exceedingly well-run music festivals. Photo: Olympia Shannon
“We’re interested in new ideas and the formation of culture today,” the museum’s founding director, Joe Thompson, says. “We just think American roots music and bluegrass is going through a really interesting and lively and idea-filled moment right now, and that’s very much what MASS MoCA is about.”
This year’s FreshGrass festival runs Friday evening through Sunday, featuring headliners Emmylou Harris, The Infamous Stringdusters, David Grisman Sextet, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Sam Bush and the duo of Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. (Talent in previous years has included lots of other big names in the field, like Yonder Mountain String Band, Del McCoury Band, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Trampled By Turtles and The Devil Makes Three.)
FreshGrass is no boutique event. It has quickly earned a place as a major bluegrass and roots-music festival in the region. This reckoning is based on the names it draws as well as its burgeoning popularity. The first year, the event — conceived in July and hurriedly executed just two months later — sold a disappointing 400 tickets. The next year, that number jumped to 1,600. In 2013 the attendance total shot up again, to 4,000.
“Because it’s made a little bit of a splash in that world, there’s a lot of enthusiasm from artists and their agents and managers,” says Ollie Chanoff, an associate curator for performing arts at MoCA. “Whereas we were hustling to book acts the first couple years, now we have a lot of people contacting us and asking to be on the festival.”
An unidentified band plays a pop-up set in one of the MASS MoCA galleries during the FreshGrass festival. Photo: Bill Wright
This museum has long had a sharp eye for forward-thinking live music. It’s the longtime host of the Bang on a Can music institute and festival, and has hosted concerts by Beck, Kim Gordon’s new project Body/Head, Marc Ribot, Jeff Mangum and Talib Kweli, to name some examples from just the last few years.
But the story of MASS MoCA’s burgeoning sideline in big festivals starts with Wilco. When that Chicago-based band created its first-ever festival around the MoCA facility in 2009, the museum folks got their first taste of five thousand people walking around the grounds at once. Thompson says he was initially concerned about the “beer at the threshold” issue — how to encourage a boisterous, hands-on attitude outside at the performances and vending areas, but still enforce proper museum etiquette inside the galleries.
As for those beers (and waters and iced coffees), concert-goers placed them on tables set up outside the main gallery entrance. But moreover, Thompson says, Wilco’s audience — and later, the FreshGrass crowd — proved to be model candidates for recruitment into the world of contemporary art.
“The audience is just a spectacular audience to have in a museum. They were not only engaged and intensely inquisitive and curious but they were also deeply respectful of the art as well as the music,” Thompson says. “Every museum sits around thinking about how to attract an ever-widening and ever-more-diverse audience. It’s easy to talk about, it’s hard to do. Having six or seven or eight thousand people a day come in to your galleries, people who may not have spent a lot of time in front of contemporary art before — that warms a museum director’s heart.”
The music is hot, but the vibe is casual. Photo: Danielle Poulin
Of course, MoCA has done more than just pull off the three Solid Sound and four FreshGrass festivals. Each one received conspicuously positive audience reviews, and with good reason. As the headline to one review in Metroland described it, they were each “a civilized affair.” From the free water to ample wi-fi to a range of reasonably priced, tasty food and drink options sold by locally based vendors, music festivals at MASS MoCA have been very fan-friendly. This is accomplished with help from a veritable army of volunteers, as well as support from Wilco’s Easthampton-based management team and FreshGrass producing partner Manitou Media, now known as Freshgrass, LLC.
Thompson says he expects an attendance this weekend of 5,000 to 5,500 festival-goers. With three years’ distance, and lots of intervening success, Thompson aptly sees the first year of FreshGrass as an investment in something bigger.
“Even though it was a financial black hole,” he says, “the quality was great. The musicians were coming up to our staff and our board and saying, ‘We know this must be tough financially, but please do it again. We know there’s an audience out there.’ That turned out to be true.”
FreshGrass Bluegrass Festival at MASS MoCA
Friday, September 19—Sunday, September 21
1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams, MA
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There’s Still Room At The Inn
The spirit of the 1960s endured at Lenox’s Music Inn.
By Jeremy D. Goodwin
The goings-on at the late, great Music Inn surely provided lots of good (though perhaps hazy) memories for folks who attended concerts and other events there. David Rothstein, the third in a series of owners, has long served as the steward of the legacy of that onetime countercultural bastion sitting next door to Tanglewood.
But soon, he says, the Music Inn—or at least, an incarnation of its spirit—may be ready to help people make some new memories.
In a free presentation at Bascom Lodge on August 24, Rothstein will talk about the history of the place he took over in 1970 and ran through the summer of 1979, before the funky oasis was felled by some combination of the worsening economy, competition from Boston-based music promoters and Tanglewood itself, and resistance from the neighbors in Lenox and Stockbridge. (A gate-crashing incident at an Allman Brothers concert is said to have been the last straw.)
Rothstein’s gaze is directed at the future as well as the past. He’s drafting plans to start promoting concerts at other, existing venues as Music Inn events. He hopes to announce the first concert in this series on Sunday at Bascom Lodge, pending finalization of the details.
“The Music Inn name seems to be alive and well in the Berkshires,” he says.
Van Morrison (at right) offstage during a visit to The Music Inn. Photo by Nanette Sanson.
The point was driven home for him earlier this month, when he was heading out of a Tanglewood concert featuring Yo-Yo Ma. He mentioned the Music Inn after striking up an idle conversation with a man directing traffic, who immediately offered a list of the acts he’d seen there himself. “Maybe I’m loony, but I think it would be fun to do,” he says of the concert series. “Saying that the Music Inn never really stopped. We just took a little break.”
New York City public relations professionals Stephanie and Phillip Barber started the Music Inn in 1950, when they bought some of the outbuildings on the grounds of the Wheatleigh manor. They scheduled jazz and folk concerts with the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, plus groundbreaking musical roundtables where academics sat alongside artists and unpacked the recent history of music.
The Barbers’ little operation blossomed into the first-ever school of jazz (for four summers), and a pioneering concert series that anticipated the (slightly) later jazz festival at Newport. Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Ornette Coleman are among the many jazz greats who taught, studied or played there. (Miles Davis arrived late and missed his one scheduled gig, but legend holds that he played a few songs for the kitchen staff out in the field.)
Richie Havens. Photo by Nanette Sanson.
After an intervening owner shifted the focus toward pop and rock acts in the 1960s, the place sat idle for three years before Rothstein and partners took the helm. During this third act of the historic venue’s history—the era best remembered by Music Inn “alumni” kicking around today—acts like the Byrds, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Van Morrison, the Kinks, and Bob Marley and the Wailers came to town.
But wait, there was more.
“It wasn’t just concerts,” Rothstein says,” we had a theatre company, a movie house, restaurants, poetry, chamber music. It was whatever was happening. So I just want to fill in some blanks so that people see it in a bigger context.”
There’s been renewed interest in this history lately, with the creation of an online archive of Music Inn photos and stories, plus a couple reunion events featuring live music and memorabilia. (There’ll be another this fall.)
Photo by Nanette Sanson.
“It’s a little amazing to see how long the memories last. People just come out of the woodwork, off the street,” Rothstein says, “and talk about it. They seem to remember more about it than I do, maybe. It really was a time that doesn’t compare in any way to more recent times.”
Though these memories are preserved mainly in photographs (and an unreleased documentary about the Music Inn’s early days), the physical evidence of this remarkable episode in the Berkshires’ cultural history has not faded entirely from view.
Near the site of the venue’s old supper club, on land that is now occupied by the White Pines condo development, there’s a plaque listing the artists who played the Music Inn, sitting inconspicuously on a tree.
“The History of the Music Inn” with David Rothstein
In the lobby of Bascom Lodge atop Mount Greylock
Adams, MA at 6 p.m., free
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Drummer Bobby Previte Cooks A New Brew In Hudson
Photo: Michael DiDonna
By Jeremy D. Goodwin
Bobby Previte has long been associated with New York’s once-thriving “Downtown” scene, where avant-jazz excursions and other musical experiments used to happen with regularity at venues like the Knitting Factory.
Though that spirit lives on in certain pockets, the ever-creeping cost of living in the City has helped kill the sense of kinship that used to predominate, he says. So when the much-accomplished drummer and his wife bought a house in Claverack last year, he started playing regular gigs at Helsinki Hudson with the goal of importing some of that old Downtown spirit.
In fact, he created a Hudson version of the shape-shifting ensemble with which he used to hold court in the City, dedicated to Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis. Voodoo Orchestra North, as he calls it, has played a series of Monday-night residencies at Helsinki. They’re currently booked through the end of August, and more dates are sure to come.
“Really, what I was trying to start was a community. A community of musicians playing a kind of music they might not get a chance to play up there. We can play anything we want, because we’re not trying to please some bandleader, or anybody,” he says on the phone from Manhattan, where he still keeps an apartment. “That speaks to one of the larger reasons I moved to the area. I missed the Downtown community, which I thought was fragmented and not there anymore. I wanted to go back to where there was a scene, where people knew each other and there was cross-pollination and everybody spoke to each other.”
It sounds like he’s finding it by the Hudson.
“I thought it might be like that,” he adds, “and I’ve been very happy that my suspicions were confirmed. There’s a lot of great musicians there and a lot of cool people, and there’s more all the time.”
Photo: Kate Previte
His Monday-night happenings feature local players from assorted musical backgrounds, as well as the occasional New York-based cat. Previte has found the local music scene so rich, in fact, that he’s started a new quintet made up of some City players and some Voodoo Orchestra North folk, and will debut the group at Hudson’s Half Moon on August 30.
Previte is particularly associated with John Zorn, Elliot Sharp and Wayne Horvitz—guys who aren’t household names in Peoria (or Hudson, necessarily), but are near-deities to in-the-know fans of various shades of experimental music. Among his many current projects is Omaha Diner, a quartet with Charlie Hunter, Skerik and Steve Bernstein that plays radical re-imaginings of former Number 1 hits. He started the Voodoo Orchestra concept for a weekly residency at the Knitting Factory in 1999, and held court there for years. He’s also taken the concept on the road, using Miles’s music as a proving ground for students and young musicians in various cities.
“Other than the fact it changed my life?”
He remembers buying the album [cover at left] upon its 1969 release and wearing out the grooves despite finding the contents, in a sense, mystifying. Though Miles had been tinkering with electronic elements in sessions for the previous year, the whopper of a double album served startling notice that he was leaving the world of postbop behind. Dark, dense and filled with swirling cross-currents of rhythm and (occasionally) melody, it’s an album that yields up its many secrets slowly, upon repeated listening.
Mammoth in size, scope and ambition, the album is not an easy one to “cover.” Previte painstakingly created his own transcriptions of the music, a process he likens to an archeological dig as he created, in effect, his own arrangement of the full piece. “My Bitches Brew is one version of Bitches Brew. I’m sure there are many others that are possible,” he says.
Previte enjoys having a new respite from the City.
The idea is to create a musical platform within which he and his collaborators can create something new every time they’re on the bandstand. He’s also quick to point out the key, partnering role played by Helsinki Hudson, which he lauds as a “world-class club with a world-class sound system and sound engineers.” And to encourage the sense of community surrounding the residency, he and the venue keep ticket prices ridiculously reasonable: $5 in advance, and $7 day-of-show. (That’s not a typo.)
“I wanted to create a scene. I wanted people to be able to just kind of go, off the cuff: Oh right, that’s tonight. Let’s go!” Previte says. “I wanted it to be spontaneous — like the music.”
The music may be spontaneous, but the effect is by design. Indeed, if you’re looking to join a new musical scene, what better way than to invite everybody over to toss their own ingredients into the brew?
Voodoo Orchestra North
Club Helsinki Hudson
August 18 & 25
Bobby Previte New Quintet
The Half Moon in Hudson, NY
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In Its 25th Year, Bard Music Festival Focuses on Schubert
By Robert Burke Warren
Every summer, the Bard Music Festival invites audiences into the world of a specific composer, presenting musical works alongside lectures about the artist’s life and times, plus panel discussions and Q & A sessions. While many past subjects – Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich, et al – might be flummoxed by the wide-ranging, jam-packed nature of the agenda, Austrian Franz Schubert, 2014’s Silver Jubilee honoree, would find the bustling, many-platformed event right up his alley. Schubert, who died at age 31 in 1828, was quite the multi-tasker, creating an astonishing amount of music in what little time he had. He left behind 1500-plus works, including songs (lieder – over 600), symphonies, and operas, most of which he’d performed only for his friends. Much of that work, both known and unknown, will shine at Bard Music Festival’s 25th anniversary.
Chirstopher H. Gibbs photo by China Jorrin.
“The way Schubert presented himself in Vienna in the 1820s was exactly Bard programming,” says BMF artistic co-director and eminent Schubert scholar Christopher H. Gibbs. He is referring to the composer’s “Schubertiades,” informal gatherings during Schubert’s brief life, usually in a private home, held by and for a small circle of admirers and patrons.
“When he presented the one concert of his music during his lifetime in 1828,” Gibbs says, “it began with the first movement of a string quartet, then songs, then a choral piece, then a piano trio. That’s exactly what we do that no one else does.” Among many other events, BMF 2014, entitled “Schubert and His World,” recreates that historic 1828 night of music, exactly as envisioned by Schubert when, unbeknownst to him, he had but eight months to live.
All told, “Schubert and His World” features twelve concert programs over two weekends – August 8–10 and August 15–17 – complemented by pre-concert lectures, panel discussions, special events, and expert commentary.
As with every BMF, co-founder and artistic co-director (and Bard dean) Leon Botstein looks forward to providing an outing in which audiences don’t just sit passively, but actively engage as they delve into the society, politics, literature, art and music of a composer’s times.
Leon Botstein photo by Steve J. Sherman.
“One of the things that attracts our regular concert-goers,” he says, “is they get to know the artist, either in a musical connection, or from a pre-concert talk, or a panel.” As for “Schubert and His World,” Botstein promises gritty stories. “What was urban life like in Vienna in the 1820s?” he asks. “That’ll be an interesting dimension.”
Schubert’s life was, indeed, interesting; although a genius, he struggled financially most of the time, chased women but sired no children, and faced frequent rejection from publishers, all while turning out copious, revolutionary work that was performed, then shelved for decades. Perhaps because of his early demise from syphilis, combined with undaunted determination and a fervent emotionality in his compositions, he looms large in the hearts of romantics.
“He is probably the most ‘Hollywood-ized’ of the great composers, in terms of film and legend,” says Botstein. “He achieved fame only posthumously, emerging gradually, and, over the nineteenth century, was turned into somebody else.” In addition to showcasing the well-known Schubert works saved for posterity by the composer’s friends, Botstein and Gibbs have also dug deep, in the hopes of fleshing out the “real” Schubert. “We’ll be presenting a lot of music that people don’t know,” he says.
Considering Schubert both as he was known in his lifetime and as posterity has come to understand him, Weekend 1, “The Making of a Romantic Legend” (Aug 8–10), offers an immersion in Schubert’s Vienna, contextualizing the composer’s early life and career within the contradictions of his native city, while Weekend 2, “A New Aesthetics of Music” (Aug 15–17), addresses the nature of Schubert’s originality and of his subsequent legacy and influence.
“Schubert and His World” continues Bard’s great tradition of revolutionizing and enriching the concert experience, unearthing buried treasure, and lighting up the Fisher Center and the tree-shaded grounds of Annandale-on-Hudson with music and much more.
Bard Music Festival
“Schubert and His World”
Friday, August 8 – Sunday, August 10
Friday, August 15 – Sunday, August 17
Box Office: (845) 758-7900
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Hear This: ‘Beethoven’ Mixes Music And Theater At The Mount
Photo: Jacqueline Chambord
By Jeremy D. Goodwin
Though we may tend to think of it nowadays in terms of visuals, theater is an art form that’s always been very concerned with listening. In Shakespeare’s day, audiences went to “hear” a play, not see one. There’s a reason theater artists refer to sub-units of a scene as “beats.”
So, the pairing of music with onstage drama is a natural fit. But in the hands of the Ensemble for the Romantic Century, the live music does more than enhance the emotional rhythms onstage. It is both a form of storytelling, and the subject of the story.
“Beethoven Love Elegies” is the troupe’s latest blend of history, music and biography, all in service of a story that means to enhance our understanding of a great artist from the past, and the context of that artist’s work. It depicts a young Beethoven making the scene in Vienna, teaching music lessons and looking for a wife as he grew increasingly deafer. Recorded music is integrated into the action, though four onstage musicians also play fare like the “Moonlight” sonata (dedicated to a young music student with whom Beethoven fell in love), his “Ghost” piano trio, and assorted lieder on the topic of romance.
Eve Wolf: writer, pianist, company founder
“When I play music, I already time travel. I feel I’m in another era with that person,” says ECR founder, pianist, and frequent playwright Eve Wolf. “Because I also like music history, I reconstruct in my mind the whole milieu. And I want to give that to other people.”
Though the troupe frequently plays in New York, it made its Berkshires debut last summer at Shakespeare & Company. (Longtime S&Co. members Jonny Epstein and Ariel Block have performed with ECR.) The premiere of “Tchaikovsky: None But the Lonely Heart” in Lenox was a hit here, and the show went on to play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this year. The theatrical/musical alchemists return to the region again this year, playing 12 performances of “Beethoven Love Elegies” at The Mount’s Stables Theatre.
Wolf, who attended the Red Fox summer camp in New Marborough as a child, went on to be a fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center, and kept a house in Stockbridge for 20 years, says this combination of music and theater is just right for audiences in the Berkshires.
The cast is led by Australian actor Kire Tosevski, a newcomer to Berkshire stages, but includes several familiar faces — including the actress and singer Deborah Grausman, who’s been seen onstage at S&Co. in “Master Class” and a staged reading of an adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility,” among various other projects; Doria Bramante, a veteran of S&Co.’s actor training program; Johnny Segalla, who appeared in youth productions at S&Co., Berkshire Theatre Group and Barrington Stage Company while growing up in Berkshire County; and the ever-dapper Colin Gold, who temporarily left the area last year to study at the prestigious London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art.
Don Sanders, the Ensemble’s resident director, is familiar with the 413 area code through his summer house in Belchertown. He says the story of Beethoven’s 20s and 30s is generally unfamiliar to audiences. “Here was this guy, almost like a young rock star,” Sanders says, “coming to the center of his kind of music — Vienna — and making it, both musically and romantically.”
But some of Beethoven’s personality, as depicted in screen stories of his life, will seem familiar. “His difficult personality, which is also very comic,” Sanders says, “is already on display. So is his attitude toward the aristocracy that he spends his time with.”
Wolf intends for this fresh look at Beethoven to be enlightening, with respect to both his personal story and the context of his music.
“I think it’s a side of Beethoven that people don’t know. They always think of him older and completely eccentric, with the wild hair. But this is Beethoven at 30, good looking, with lots of love interests. He’s searching for a wife and not finding one, but also writing his only opera, ‘Fidelio,’ in which he creates the perfect wife as a character.”
The whole piece is based on documentary evidence from Beethoven’s life — letters, diary entries, contemporary accounts. Wolf, who wrote it, says there’s no need to dress the story up with fictional devices.
“You don’t need fiction for Beethoven. The real stuff is already very interesting.”
Ensemble for the Romantic Center presents “Beethoven Love Elegies”
Through Aug. 3
The Stables Theatre at The Mount