Rustic Charm at Symphony in the Barn
Concerts within the setting of a living farm, where chickens lay their eggs and horses graze, give a completely different ambiance to what culture is all about;
— Michael Schmidt, Founder & Co-Artistic Director
Every once and a while I get invited to an event that is truly unique, and this summer Symphony in the Barn was it. When the email from Carol Gimbel, the festival’s co-artistic director arrived in my inbox, I immediately jumped at the chance to spend the long-weekend enjoying classical music on an eco-sustainable farm in Durham, Ontario. The festival ended up being much more than just watching a symphony play. It was three days of chamber music, silo sound installations, surprise musical guests, fire dancers, film-installations, late-night DJ sets, bonfires, home-baked bread, and some very chill barn animals. I never expected to enjoy myself quite so much, but this mini, musical adventure really did prove itself memorable.
The most difficult part of the trip was the drive, and even that wasn’t so demanding. It takes about 2.5 hours to arrive in Durham. We had to leave during the long-weekend rush, and had some issues due to a nasty thunder storm that blocked our route, making our journey out much longer than anticipated, but under normal circumstances, and even with the return rush we made it back into town in about 2 hours, no problem.
The first evening featured music played by the Attacca Quartet, from New York. The group frequently perform internationally and were as visually engaging as they were a pleasure to listen to. The serene countryside and starlit sky made the perfect backdrop for a relaxing evening of music. After the concert we made our way to the back of the stage where Toronto based artist collective led Raw Lounge took over as we waited to attend an electronic improvisation which would be taking place inside the silo.
Inside the silo we were treated to The Late Night Soundtower Concert, a 20 minute, sonic meditation featuring Warhol Dervish, Geof Holbrook and special guests. The musicians improvised as we lay on blankets, watching video projections dance across the interior of the silo. It was a very tight fit, but the experience was nonetheless worth exploring further in the future. The Raw Lounge included artistic spaces and reflective pit-stops which complemented the acoustic music from earlier in the evening. A bonfire was lit, and a bar setup while a DJ provided electro-improvisations. Unfortunately, only a small group of people stayed for the night, most of whom attended the silo improv and then left.
After spending some down time at the farm we made our way back down the road to Marj’s bed and breakfast where the crickets sang us to sleep. The next morning we woke up at the crack of dawn to try and catch a glimpse of the countryside at daybreak. We ventured down to the river and visited the Durham waterfalls. Once there, we were inspired by the tranquility of the area and decided to drive north towards Owen Sound.
When we arrived about 45 minutes later we were greeted by fog so dense that our objective of visiting the water got upgraded to a drive further West to Sauble Beach. At that hour only a few lazy beachgoers were trickling down to the sand, and after a moment to take in the view we headed up to the Sauble Falls. Even at 9am it was evident that the falls are a major tourist attraction, as is the beach. My recommendation is that if you want to take a day trip to the area, be prepared to arrive before 10 am, otherwise you will be stuck in traffic for miles, as there is only one road that leads you to the beach, and the falls will be crowded with people wading in to take photos, kids playing and dogs swimming.
Upon our return we were greeted by the lovely Marj, who was gracious enough to open her home to use for the duration of the festival. She doesn’t run a bed and breakfast anymore, but made an exception for a few of us that arrived from out of town. She offered us sumptuous homemade bread and jams, and was never without a hot pot of tea waiting on the table. Her daughter came by to visit and told us about the Chicory Common Natural Foods & Cafe, run by her husband down in town. Before leaving Durham a few days later, we stopped in to visit and I enjoyed a beautiful quinoa and mango salad that was exactly what I needed to ready me for the journey back home. Their cafe has a lot to offer, so if you’re looking for an alternative to diners and fast food, you must give them a try.
Day two of the festival started in the early afternoon and featured a variety of family friendly events such as Singing the Soundtower, a group vocal journey led by M’Wikwedong Native Cultural Group and a Farm Walk, where participants could learn about the biodynamic farm and feed the animals.
Dinner in the Orchard is one of the bespoke events offered, and was sold-out well in advance. Guests sat at an artfully prepared table al fresco in the orchard, and were treated to a farm-to-table five-course dinner, complete with wine pairings.
After dinner, diners joined the few hundred other concert-goers who were seated in the garden, ready for the headlining performance by the Barn Orchestra, conducted by Michael Schmidt and featuring members of the Attacca Quartet, and the Cuarteto Janus.
Michael Schmidt served double duty as both Maestro and host. His farm and vision are where Symphony in the Barn were born and existed for over 25 years. With vision and tenacity like few I’ve ever met, his imagination and skill have brought magic and music to this quiet corner of Durham.
The concert began with a water blessing by Shirley John, Elder of Saugeen First Nation, Water Walker – Protector, Anishinaabe. This ritual was followed by a striking world premiere of Aqua, for improvised piano and strings, composed and performed by pianist Kati Gleiser. The piece was evocative of the elements, and complemented the sunset and evening breeze. The orchestra added in texture by singing water sounds as they played. It was a gorgeous serenade that could have gone on for much longer than the 10 minutes we were exposed to.
After Aqua, Michael Schmidt made his entrance and we were treated to delightful renditions of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, Op. 40 and Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14, as arranged by Mahler by the Symphony in the Barn Orchesta. The amount of joy and passion that emanated from the players was infective, and the audience was wrapt in their energy and sound. These works not only showed the skill of all the musicians involved, but served to please and delight the audience and musicians. Schmidt, with his vision, has managed to bring classical music to a breezy Saturday night in the country, without pretence. It was music-making at its most enjoyable.
After the concert, the Raw Lounge took over and treated us to another evening of electronic sound by Matthew Masskant and video projections by Peter Mettler. Vita Twirlin Diva entertained the crowd with her fire dancing while party-goers enjoyed the late-night bar and the bonfire. We took in the performances, enjoyed seeing the stars, unlike anything visible in Toronto, and spent some time winding down in The Chill Womb tent with Slava Sapershteyn.
On Sunday morning we enjoyed fresh-baked croissants and muesli offered by Michael and his wife Elisa. We spent the morning lazing around, chatting with musicians and getting to know some of the people who camped onsite for the weekend. Many were couples with young children who had loved the whole experience and hoped to return.
Things wound down with a lovely afternoon concert by the Cuarteto Janus. Visiting from Guadalajara, Mexico, they were the International Artists-in-Residence of the Symphony in the Barn Mentorship Programme. They treated us to an intimate concert of artfully arranged folk and traditional music.
Overall we had a fantastic time in Durham. I will admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect before we left the city, but I was so incredibly impressed by the atmosphere, the quality of the performances, and the amazing people that I would absolutely recommend Symphony in the Barn to anyone looking to get away for a few days. The peace and tranquility was rejuvenating and the region is a gem to visit. If you are interested in visiting, Durham is an easy drive to Blue Mountain, Meaford, Tobermory, Owen Sound and Sauble Beach.