Baroque in a barn

By Greg Mercer, originally published in Grand Magazine

Hidden among rolling cornfields outside of Ayr, down a dirt roadway and past a narrow, rusty truss bridge stands a concert hall over a century in the making.

The Scottish farmer who built this hall likely never imagined that strangers would one day come here by the hundreds, gather around a knee-high stage and soak up Baroque music as it floats up into the old wooden rafters above.

For him, this hall was a barn, and it housed cattle, horses and pigs.

But for the Grand River Baroque Festival, this barn is the heart of their annual June gathering. They have built a three-day festival around it – a tribute to its natural acoustics and pretty pastoral setting.

The property’s owners, David and Millie Buehlow, have been inviting the festival’s crowds to their farm for the past eight years. With each year, the audiences keep getting bigger, numbering over 400 visitors at one concert last year.

The old brown barn, which no longer houses animals, provides the venue, and the Buehlows provide the welcome mat. David, a retired chartered accountant, turned an acre of farmland into a grass parking lot, rebuilt the barn’s floor and relined its east wall with wood to improve the sound. Millie cleaned and vacuumed out the building, and manicured the surrounding flower gardens that invite lounging and picnic lunches.

It all makes for a one-of-a-kind musical experience – the musicians play with the big barn doors pulled open, letting the smell of grass and warm summer breezes float in, and allowing the occasional sparrow to flit among the wooden beams.

This year, the festival’s creative side is guided by two past festival performers, trumpeter Guy Few and bassoonist Nadina Makie Jackson. As newly-appointed artistic directors, they have big ideas for the coming years – they want to broaden the appeal of the festival and offer more of the unexpected.

The festival, which will extend to the Paris Presbyterian Church and the Dolce Vita restaurant in nearby Paris, will include a masquerade gala, a lavish Italian meal, readings on the history of chocolate and a Sunday feast around the Buehlow’s gardens.

Musically, the festival promises a modern take on the standards of the 17th and18th centuries, a period made famous by the likes of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. There will be a focus on soloists, all in a quiet country setting where “your ears go ‘ahhh,” as Mackie Jackson puts it.

“They’ll hear the music as it should be. It’s Baroque music in an immediate setting,” she adds. “If you look out any crack in the barn, it’s like a framed painting. You can hear the sound of people’s feet on the thick wood floor. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Sounds rise naturally into the barn’s four-storey ceiling, crossed by rough-hewn beams and old pulleys once used for lifting hay. The building’s wood interior is “warm,” says Mackie Jackson, amplifying the music organically and without echo.

“The wood just absorbs the sound,” she said.

With the occasional patter of rain on its tin roof, it becomes an awfully intimate venue – musicians play on a short, black stage with 250 chairs crowded around. There’s an old granary at the back – called the “Pig Pen” – where the players prepare and relax, and another spacious wing where food and drink are sold.

This is open-air, Baroque music you can reach out and touch, where patrons and performers often mingle together. Few likes to perch on the stage after he plays, and chat with the audience.

“It just feels right somehow,” he said. “This is really about having a good time. It’s like a breath of fresh air.”

The artistic directors understand the appeal of escaping to the country for a weekend of music. Few grew up spending his days on his grandparents’ farm outside of Saskatoon, and Makie Jackson was raised on a ranch in northern British Columbia.

Crowds come as they are – there’s no dress code here. And there’s a level of respect for the homeowners you might not find at a rock concert – David Beuhlow, a former chair of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, remembers being surprised at the lack of litter left behind by the hundreds who had spent the weekend in his yard.

“We’re happy they’re enjoying themselves,” said Millie, a country-raised woman who exudes good, old-fashioned hospitality. “We had so many people coming up to us and thanking us.”

People seemed to have latched on to the idea of a local festival inspired a little bit by the Tanglewood Jazz Festival, held at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. They wanted a place where they could listen to top-notch professional musicians, lounge in the grass and soak up the fresh country air.

All this began with a simple proposition a few years before the first concert was held. James Mason, a oboist with the K-W Symphony, approached the Buehlows after a reception at their farmhouse for symphony donors. Mason was awed by the sound he heard in the barn, and he pitched his idea.

“He came up to me and said ‘we’ve got to talk,” David recalls.

And so it came to be – a Baroque festival was created in the most unlikely of places. Soon, cars from all over would be coming down that dusty township road, crossing over the green Nith River, and driving up a winding, wooded laneway to the house. They’d park on the lawn, and stroll past Beuhlow’s maple syrup shack, his carpentry shop and wood piles, drawn in by the music coming from his barn.

“I don’t think people knew what to expect the first time. They were pleasantly surprised,” David said. “And we were pretty sure it would work. But we didn’t think it would work as well as it did.”

3 Responses to Baroque in a barn

  1. Pat Moore on May 22, 2011 at 8:46 am

    I am looking for info about the 2011 Grand River Baroque Festival. Can you help me?



  2. Greg Mercer on May 27, 2011 at 8:18 am

    Hi Pat – looks like the 2011 season may be canceled. The website is down, the festival’s email address bounces back and the phone is disconnected.

    One of my colleagues is looking into it. Keep your eye on for a story.

  3. G. Logan on June 7, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    I sent an email to Guy Few who kindly responded and said that he and Nadina had stepped down after the festival last year and he did not believe that there would be a festival this year

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