• Creating its own future: Scrag Mountain Music
    By Jim Lowe
     | June 01,2014

    Stefan Hard / Staff Photo ¬ Scragg Mountain Music and guests rehearse in Warren in 2013. From left are Karen Kevra on flute, soprano Mary Bonhag, violinist Owen Dalby, Evan Premo on double bass, and Meena Bhasin on viola.

    Classical music organizations are constantly talking about creating new audiences. But for the most part, it’s either by dumbing down or apologizing for its art, or merely paying lip service to it. All are guaranteed to fail.

    But, there is one Vermont music group that is doing it — and doing it well.

    Scrag Mountain Music, a tiny Warren-based music group, is creating its own new audience, not only by playing unusual venues — not so unusual these days — but by bringing its community into its music-making progress as well as making it affordable for anyone.

    Scrag Mountain Music (www.scragmountainmusic.org) is soprano Mary Bonhag, bassist Evan Premo and their friends — from here as well as the New York music world. The married couple, both young, high-end conservatory-trained musicians, moved here some three years ago to raise their family. The couple — both excellent musicians — have not only helped raise the music level of the area by joining other ensembles, they created their own group.

    This weekend, Scrag Mountain Music has been introducing a new work, written especially for the group, and pairing it with one of the most familiar and beloved works in the chamber music repertoire. On Friday at Randolph’s First Light Studios and Saturday at Montpelier’s Unitarian Church, the group performed Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet and the premiere of Lembit Beecher’s “Looking at Spring: Meditations on Aging,” an evocative song cycle for soprano, strings and piano.

    Missed it? There’s one more opportunity, at 7 p.m. tonight at the Warren United Church. And here’s where the affordable part comes in: Scrag Mountain’s policy since its inception has been “come as you are, pay what you can.” Can’t get much more accessible than that.

    But, maybe it can. On Tuesday, Scrag Mountain offered one of its “Very Open Rehearsals” at the Warren church — and they really meant open.

    It’s not unusual for classical music groups to invite “under-served” audiences to dress rehearsals. But, not only was this one of the first rehearsals, attendees were invited to question the players as well as comment during the rehearsal itself.

    And that’s just what they did. The 15 or so who attended were clearly classical music lovers, so the Schubert was nothing new to them. But they did ask probing questions, not so much about interpretation but about the details of the preparation. Even without the questions, it was fascinating to observe these fine musicians questioning each other.

    More telling was the preparation for “Looking at Spring.” Beecher, the young composer currently serving a three-year appointment as first composer-in-residence at Opera Philadelphia, was on hand to explain things, both to the attendees and the musicians. The text was created by Canadian writer Liza Blakan who came to Vermont to interview elders.

    This early rehearsal involved only the first of 10 songs. (All but two are read as poems.) “Mornings” proved hauntingly lyrical, with its imaginative and well-crafted blending of harmonically complex sounds. The more jocular “Nobody Dies Anymore” has an infectious Ravel-like colorful anarchy to it.

    Not only did the audience share with the musicians the experience of something entirely new, they were able to observe how musicians prepare music that they never had the benefit — or prejudice — of hearing others play. It was a unique experience for all.

    Jim Lowe is arts editor of The Times Argus and the Rutland Herald, and can be reached at jim.lowe@timesargus.com.

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