PUTNEY -- Words of tribute, condolence and warm recollection continue to stream into the Yellow Barn website, as friends, colleagues and former students honor David Wells, who died Aug. 7 at the age of 85.
A gifted cellist and co-founder of Yellow Barn with his wife Janet, David Wells is being remembered as a gentle and loving man, who could draw from seemingly bottomless wells of kindness, caring, empathy and joy.
"During my six years with Mr. Wells, I learned about the cello, but I also learned about generosity of spirit and simply how to be. I can't perform and teach today without constantly referencing David. He was much more than a great cellist and teacher; much more, even than a great musician -- David was a great human being," wrote Benjamin Myers.
A student of Wells' in the 1960s, Benjamin Rosen wrote: "Forty years and many teachers later, I still feel touched by David's essential goodness and his interest and willingness to see me as I was then. It is so rare to have someone truly see us. ... David had many gifts, but this one, above all, I remember, cherish and still draw dividends. He made the world a better place."
Dave Wells' particular corner of the world, for the last 43 years or so, was Putney, where he and Janet lived, put down roots, raised a family and built the little music festival they started in 1969 in their home with the attached yellow barn into a venerable and vital institution.
Wells died two days after Yellow Barn's 43rd summer festival season came to a close. Though in declining health, he was able to make it to concerts this year and died peacefully at home, surrounded by family and friends.
"David died very gently. The way he died seemed very true to the way he lived. ... I know that he had been feeling that it was time," said Knopp. "I felt somehow the end of his life was quite beautiful. He was still relishing things. He was still full of the joy of living."
"(The memorial) was a wonderful outpouring of his different communities," Knopp added. "It felt, not tragic, but sad. It felt like people will miss him."
Perhaps to temper those feelings -- and certainly to express gratitude and joy for the blessings of his life -- Wells left a note which he asked be shared when he died.
Addressed to "All My Students Over the Years," it said: "I wanted you to know what a central place you occupied in my life. Some of you I met during my early days at the Manhattan School of Music, others at the Hartt School of Music, the New England Conservatory, Princeton University, the Westminster Choir College, the 92nd Street Y, Windham College, or at our beloved Yellow Barn in Putney.
"I hope I helped you mature as musicians, but did you know that you in turn were my inspiration? You helped me develop, not only as a musician, but also as a fuller human being. How fortunate I was to know people like you, so full of life. Throughout the years I felt as though we became family. For this, I thank you."
Family is a word that comes up a lot when people talk about Yellow Barn. From the festival's earliest days, much of what was important took place on David and Janet's front porch over slices of watermelon, or in the garden picking beans, or in softball games, dances, trips to the swimming hole.
"The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Yellow Barn is the family that it is. You really feel like you're part of a big family," said Yellow Barn participant Dale Barltrop in a 2009 Reformer interview as Yellow Barn was celebrating its 40th anniversary.
"They made themselves completely open to their students and their audience, and that creates a family atmosphere that continues on," said Yellow Barn Executive Director Catherine Stephan, who first came to Yellow Barn as a cello student in the 1980s and then returned three years ago to take the helm. "David loved every aspect of what was going on around him."
Stephan first met Wells when she was 9, and her cello teacher took her to hear Wells play.
"That really left an impression on me. He was the most ferocious player, but when I went backstage, he gave me the kindest smile ever bestowed on a 9-year-old," said Stephan.
Years later, she was fortunate to become one of Wells' students.
"David was the most human musician that I ever studied with. ... He was delighted in what I was delighted in. He was frustrated by what I was frustrated by," said Stephan. "I think that empathy is what makes him stand out."
Stephan has special memories of the time she spent together with Wells during lessons.
"For the most part, with me, they were very quiet, and it was as if time was suspended," said Stephan. "But everyone has a story of David screaming at the top of his lungs, ‘More! More! More!' ... which was sort of his approach to life."
Indeed, though he made his mark quietly, gently and with humility, Wells' passion, especially for music, boiled over in great, expressive outpourings that left big impressions.
Knopp had just finished his freshman year in college and found himself at a summer festival, playing in a quartet Wells was coaching.
"The first word that he spoke to me ... it was not a word at all, just basically a scream asking for ‘More!" said Knopp.
Wells' passions extended beyond music, teaching, family and friends. He was interested in social causes and activism, and he was known for his sense of humor.
"He liked to cut up. He was a prankster," Knopp said.
And then there his passion for food.
"David loved to eat ... a lot. He said that publicly," said Knopp, who wrote in tribute to Wells in 2010 at the time the Windham Orchestra honored him with a program titled "Cello-bration." "David once crowed (yes, he sounded like Peter Pan!) that his festival, Yellow Barn, was about food, music and love. David is true to his words. He offers sustenance with the generosity of a Jewish mother and eats with the pleasure of a Roman emperor."
But above all, there was music -- and the way Wells could convey his passion for music to his students.
"The way he taught was just from the soul of music. His whole soul was Yellow Barn. It was his life, extended to students," said Cornelia "Corky" Watkins in a 2009 Reformer interview.
The youngest of six children, David Wells was born in 1927 in East Chicago, Ind., to Samuel R. Wells, a school principal, and Helen Beatrice Kester Wells, a piano teacher. David began playing the cello at age 9 in memory of his oldest sister, herself a cellist, who died in a car accident.
His most influential teacher was Diran Alexanian, with whom he studied at the Manhattan School of Music, earning master's degrees in both music and music education. Wells' vibrant playing found voice in a performing career that embraced the repertoire for solo cello, concertos with orchestra and chamber music.
He performed with the Manhattan Trio, the Hartt String Quartet and, after marrying Janet Rosenthal in 1954, the Wells Duo, a collaboration that was heard in major American and European cities. He won American Artists and Harold Bauer awards.
In 1968, the Wellses moved their family to Putney with the dream to find a home, with a barn attached, that would serve as a summer music retreat for students. In 1969, Yellow Barn came to be.
"It just felt like the right thing to do. We just did it because we had to do it," said Wells, in an interview with the Reformer on the occasion of Yellow Barn's 40th anniversary. "Always, music-making and study of music overwhelmed me."
The festival became a family project. Their 8-year old son started a lemonade stand, making change from a shoebox under a card table. Their older son took charge of landscaping the property. Even their dog Benjamin was presented during a concert, where he debuted his famous "Dumky" Trio howl.
Students lived with the Wellses and their friends in Putney and were given $5 a week for breakfast. They ate dinner on the Wellses' screened porch. They practiced, rehearsed, and went swimming during the day and often danced to a record player at night.
As artistic directors of Yellow Barn, David and Janet Wells nurtured generations of young musicians with loving care. They stayed in close touch with many of them and enjoyed these long-lasting relationships.
"It's kind of sweet. It's one of the special pleasures of teaching, that they still keep in touch," said David in a 2010 Reformer interview. "The actual act of teaching, getting a kid to play on a different level, was always very thrilling. ... I feel like I've had a lucky life."
Plans are still being formulated, but Yellow Barn will honor David Wells in many ways in its upcoming season; certainly opening weekend will be dedicated to him. Stephan said Yellow Barn is gathering artifacts, recordings and other mementos for a collection to honor him.
In addition, people are welcome to add their remembrances at the Yellow Barn website -- www.yellowbarn.org.
Gifts to Yellow Barn in honor of David Wells may be made by sending a check with "in honor of David Wells" in the memo line to: Yellow Barn, 63 Main St., Putney, VT 05346. For more information, call 802-387-6637.
Jon Potter can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 149.