Family shares musical talents with community
MARSHFIELD, Vt. (AP) — Soprano Mary Bonhag and her husband bassist and composer Evan Premo came to Vermont nearly a decade ago for a better life, but they ended up up giving their new Vermont community a better life too. Their unique classical chamber music concert series, Scrag Mountain Music, presented its first concert in January 2011, and a loyal audience has been growing ever since.
“There were a few things that were very important to us right from the get go, and actually very little has changed as far as our mission goes,” Bonhag, co-artistic director with her husband, said recently by phone.
“Our mission has always been to create an artistic and community experience that is mutually beneficial,” she said. “For the community, we’re trying to create concert experiences that stretch well beyond playing and singing the music - in order to help people connect to the music that we feel so passionately about.
“And we felt that musicians need focus time with their music, away from the demands of modern life, and away from the city settings that most of our friends and colleagues were in,” Bonhag said.
They were also concerned with making their concerts financially accessible, so they came up with an unusual model: “Come as you are, pay what you can.”
Soprano Mary Bonhag and bassist Evan Premo perform a Scrag Mountain Music concert with colleagues at the Green Mountain Girls Farm in Northfield.
“It means that we invite everyone to come, no matter what they can afford,” Bonhag said. “If they can’t afford anything, we just want them to be there having of the experience of the music. The idea is that people who can afford more will subsidize those who have less - and that is largely what we have found.”
Bonhag and Premo moved to Vermont in 2010 after Bonhag finished her master’s degree at Bard College, having made her Carnegie Hall with the American Symphony Orchestra in 2009. Premo just finished a two-year fellowship at Carnegie Hall, playing chamber music and doing community engagement.
The initial purpose of coming to central Vermont was for Premo to take a 10-week intensive fine furniture-making course at YesterMorrow Design Build School in Waitsfield. Bonhag, a New Hampshire native, and Premo, who grew up in rural Michigan, had already decided that they didn’t want to live in an urban area.
“That got us to Northfield,” Bonhag said. “We fell in love with the community. We met so many incredible people who were so excited that were there. And we’d been dreaming about what a music festival or concert series would look like that we create.”
As students, Bonhag and Premo had performed at music festivals around the country, which told them what they wanted for their own music making. And Scrag Mountain Music was born.
“We were like a family right from the beginning,” Bonhag. “We cook all the meals; we house people with us; we rehearse at our home. The musicians come, they’re in residence with us - therefore they’re in residence in our community.”
Right from the very beginning, they invited the locals to share rehearsals, potluck dinners, “exploring music” sessions, and they initiated school outreach.
Bonhag and Premo were focused on “the things we could think of to help people connect to the music, to help break down barriers that people might feel toward classical music, and get people asking questions about what goes on behind the scenes - which gets people excited about it.”
Their “pay what you can” financial model has been surprisingly successful from the beginning.
“We started with no risk,” Bonhag said. “That first concert we just had to come up with the money to pay the musicians. We paid them very little, and one of them donated her fee back to us.”
Scrag Mountain has become successful enough to hire a professional administrator. Lara Mones, a veteran of the likes of Putney’s Yellow Barn Music Festival, became managing director in March.
“She is just fabulous,” Bonhag said. “When we formally put this idea to our board last fall, we had this inkling that if we had that administrative support, we would have such a larger capacity for implementing our ideas or having ideas to implement.
“And that was absolutely the case,” she said. “So we are looking forward to this coming season, and the season after, having already planned much of it - and feeling able to stretch beyond what we’ve done in terms of the past in terms of reaching impact on Vermont audiences.”
Today, Bonhag, Premo and their two Vermont-born sons make their home in Marshfield. In addition to making Scrag Mountain Music the success that it is, they travel extensively building their own individual professional careers. Asked for a highlight of Scrag Mountain, Bonhag chose their 2012 performance of George Crumb’s spectacular “Madrigals.”
“That was incredible,” she said. “It’s so rarely performed in its entirety because there’s such a huge percussion setup. With one percussionist, the setup took the entire stage - plus harp, plus flute, plus bass, plus soprano.”
Information from: The Times Argus, http://www.timesargus.com/