’One Red Rose’ Yellow Barn creates program and commissions new work to commemorate 50th anniversary of Kennedy assassination


PUTNEY -- Like so many of us, Steven Mackey remembers exactly where he was when he heard President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

A third-grader in Marysville, Calif., at the time, Mackey was home sick on Nov. 22, 1963, watching cartoons on TV when the program was interrupted by a newsflash about the assassination.

"Seconds after that, I heard our neighbor burst in, and my mother and the neighbor started sobbing," he recalled. "The JFK assassination has personal resonance for me. ... I remember that day very clearly."

Mackey had never seen his mother cry like that. His parents were part of the Camelot generation -- his father worked for the government -- and the assassination fell hard on them.

Recently, Mackey has revisited that day and the emotions it stirred. A distinguished and much-honored composer, whose work draws on jazz and rock as well as classical influences, Mackey is a professor of music at Princeton University, and for 10 years he has spent his summers at the Yellow Barn Music Festival. It is through his connection with Yellow Barn that he was commissioned to write a piece to commemorate the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination.

"One Red Rose," a chamber piece co-commissioned by Yellow Barn, the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and Carnegie Hall, will be performed alongside pieces by Messiaen and John Cage this Friday at 8 p.m., at Next Stage in Putney.

From there, the program will be presented on Nov. 23 in Dallas, followed by a special performance of "One Red Rose" at the Sixth Floor Museum in Dealey Plaza, where the assassination took place, on Sunday, Nov. 24, at 2 p.m.

Performers include the Brentano String Quartet, clarinetist Charles Niedich and Knopp in piano.

As a prelude, Yellow Barn offers tonight at 7 p.m., a Residency Program panel discussion with the performers, moderated by Cliff Chanin, director of education at the 9/11 Memorial Museum. The panel discussion is free and takes place at the Putney Public Library.

This special collaboration came about because Yellow Barn Artistic Director Seth Knopp is also artistic director of a music series at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas.

"It seemed like a sin of omission to let such an important milestone go by," said Knopp, who also quickly had to grapple with how complicated commemorating such a sensitive and emotionally charged event can be.

"I came to realize what a burden this event still was on the city of Dallas," said Knopp. "I began to think about this event being seen through the perspective of a larger time frame, a longer lens ... to take it out of the moment and out of the geography and look at it as a possible way not of healing but of accepting."

Selecting the music for such a program was a challenge. Knopp wanted to avoid the idea of a program of elegies and requiems. Instead, he wanted to "allow people in the hall to have a communal experience."

He selected two very different, iconic pieces of 20th century music -- Olivier Messiaen’s "Quartet for End of Time," an eight-movement, 50-minute work of great intensity and inspiration that Messiaen composed while he was a prisoner of war in a German camp in 1940. It was first performed in the camp; and John Cage’s "4:33," a piece in three movements which calls on the performers not to play their instruments.

Friday’s program opens with the reading of Jorge Luis Borges’ poem "Memoriam to JFK," followed by the Messiaen, interspersed at times with extracts of some of Kennedy’s speeches. The Messiaen piece has been described as one which also seems to lift listeners out of their present state and into a new space.

This will be followed by the Cage piece, which Knopp hopes will have the effect of bringing people silently and prayerfully together before re-entry into the world, like the Jewish custom of sitting Shiva.

The second half of the program features Mackey’s "One Red Rose," performed by the Brentano String Quartet.

In composing "One Red Rose" Mackey wanted to avoid writing music which described or explained the events of Nov. 22, 1963.

"I felt that Steve could write a work that could find a balance between focusing on the event without being an aural representation of the event," said Knopp. "I wanted it to be an honest representation of things that could speak to a way of looking at those events."

In thinking about Nov. 22, 1963, Mackey said he kept coming back to the sound of his mother sobbing, as well as to Jacqueline Kennedy and the private grief she must have felt all while being in the public eye. This tension between the way the event played out both on a national scale and on a personal level shaped his thinking, he said.

"I started thinking about Jackie because on the one hand she gracefully performs the rituals of state but on the other hand I imagined what must have been trauma and personal grief," Mackey said.

The title comes from a description Mackey came across while researching the assassination. He remembers reading about the Secret Service officers who combed the limousine for clues after the assassination and found a blood-soaked red rose from the bouquet Jackie was holding when the assassination took place.

"It sort of tips my hand that I’m dealing with the survivors of this," said Mackey. "I think of the end (of the piece) as being uplifting. ... I think of the end as being about moving forward in a positive way."

Both Mackey and Knopp have been to Dealey Plaza and were moved by the experience.

"It’s remarkably intense. In a way, it’s hallowed ground," Knopp said. "One of the things that’s quite graphic is they have little X’s marked on the street to mark the spots where the bullets struck the president."

"I did get chills in the Sixth Floor Museum. That did sort of hit me," said Mackey recounting his trip to the former Book Depository building which now houses a museum chronicling the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy. "I feel honored to be included. ... I took this assignment very seriously."

Admission to tonight’s panel discussion with the musicians at the Putney Public Library is free.

Tickets to Friday’s 8 p.m. concert at Next Stage are $12 and are available at www.yellowbarn.org. For more information about the presentations, including the performances in Dallas, visit Yellow Barn’s website or call 802-387-6637.


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