, Newburyport, MA

November 14, 2013

All about Newburyport

Chamber Music Festival features five pieces inspired by Newburyport

By Ann Reily
Features Editor

---- — The Newburyport Chamber Music Festival has always made a point of celebrating the Newburyport region and everything that makes it unique.

This weekend, five commissions doing just that will be brought together in one concert at a new venue: Newburyport City Hall.

“It’s in kind of the spiritual epicenter of Newburyport,” said David Yang, artistic director of the festival.

In addition to three previously performed pieces — “Awake and Shine” for acoustic guitar and string quartet by Peter Gilbert, “Captain Samuels Speaks to the Sea” for string trio and narrator by Melissa Dunphy, and “Three Tenses of Light” for string quartet and chorus by Andrea Clearfield — the event will also include a newly expanded piece and a world premiere.

Kile Smith’s “Plain Truths” is a lengthy piece for baritone, string quartet and chorus based on writings by prominent Newburyporters, including 19th-century novelist Harriet Prescott Spofford, abolitionist William Lloyd Dexter and 18th-century merchant Lord Timothy Dexter.

For this concert, called “A Sense of Place,” he has added two new movements to the 2011 work, one that will be preceded by live narration by journalist and writer Bill Plante. “Homing In” is based on a poem by Plante that recalls the Newburyport of his youth in the 1920s and ’30s.

The second new movement is called “Remembering Meho?” and was written by Tom Coleman for a book of town reminiscences.

Meho “lived on Fair Street and was a local handyman,” said Jane Niebling, executive director of the festival.

“Plain Truths” will spotlight soloist Randall Scarlata — “He’s a bona fide star,” Yang said — along with the Candlelight Chorale, which will also sing on “Three Tenses of Light.”

The world premiere is called “Demonstrations,” a “kind of political piece” that was written and will be performed by Kenneth Woods, a cellist in Yang’s string trio. The music is unusual in that it incorporates the electric guitar, in particular a “famous local” one, Yang said.

“It’s this jet-black, kind of ‘Night Stalker’-looking instrument,” he said.

For Niebling, Saturday’s concert is the fruition of an idea she came up with several years ago.

“This whole concert is really about us,” she said. “It was too good to pass up.”

“Three Tenses of Light,” based on a poem by Rhina Espaillat of Newburyport, was particularly well-received when it was first performed last year.

“That was tremendously resonant with the audience,” Niebling said.

And although Yang lives in Philadelphia, where he is the director of chamber music at the University of Pennsylvania, he said he has fallen in love with Newburyport and has even considered moving here. He is always looking for new ways to tie into the community, from using local volunteers for each concert to having the musicians stay with residents here instead of in hotels.

And while he asks each composer to make sure their commissions are inspired by the region, “I let them do it,” he said.

“They try to understand what’s indefinable about this place,” Yang said. “Because (the music is) rooted in the community, it makes sense to people.”

A preview of Smith’s piece will be presented tomorrow night at the Custom House Maritime Museum, along with a panel discussion moderated by Yang, who will be asking Smith questions like, “How do you take a text and turn it into music?” This is the festival’s fourth year collaborating with the museum, and a maritime-inspired piece is being commissioned for next summer.

“I hope to keep reminding people that classical music is still around, it’s still being written,” Niebling said.

The concert will also feature Yang on viola, Angel Valchinov and Heidi Schaul-Yoder on violin, and Daniel Lippel on acoustic and electric guitar.

If you go

What: “A Sense of Place” preview

When: Tomorrow, 6:30 p.m.

Where: Custom House Maritime Museum, 25 Water St., Newburyport

How much: $15 ($10 for members)

More information: 978-462-8681 or

What: “A Sense of Place” concert

When: Saturday, 7 p.m. Reception to follow.

Where: Newburyport City Hall, 60 Pleasant St.

How much: $20 (free for students)

More information: 978-463-9776 or