Upper Valley sees an explosion of smaller venues for live performances

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    Nancy Cardenuto, of Quechee, Vt., performs her rendition of "In My Room" by the Beach Boys during the open mic night in the "Hayloft" of the Artistree Community Arts Center in South Pomfret, Vt., on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. Artistree's headquarters used to be in a smaller farmhouse in Woodstock, but they have since moved to a bigger complex. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

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    Jim Yeager and Danelle Sims finish their performance during the open mic night in the "Hayloft" of the Artistree Community Arts Center in South Pomfret, Vt., on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. Due to the growth of Artistree, they moved to this new complex in 2013. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Joseph Ressler

  • Mecca Griffith, of Yale Divinity School, participates in making Valentine's Day-themed art during the Mix, Mingle & Make event at the Artistree Community Arts Center in South Pomfret, Vt., on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. A group of Yale students joined the open studio event for a retreat outing. The complex of Artistree includes classrooms and studios for visual art as well as spaces for music and theater performance. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Joseph Ressler

  • Sylvie Desautels leads her continuing beginning yoga class in the performance hall of the Seven Stars Arts Center in Sharon, Vt., on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. The center is a hub for performance and education in music, dance and visual art. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Joseph Ressler

  • The Seven Stars Arts Center is photographed in Sharon, Vt., on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019, in a historic, 1800s Baptist church that has since been Grange Hall, a spiritual healing center and a community meeting space. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/16/2019 9:48:24 PM
Modified: 2/16/2019 9:48:24 PM

The first time Barbara Smith played her saxophone with the East Bay Jazz Ensemble in the mid-1990s, she looked around what was then the Seven Stars spiritual center in Sharon village and recalled her father’s stories about dancing to the beat of big bands in the 1940s and ’50s, during the building’s incarnation as a Grange hall.

A few years later, Smith’s future husband and a fellow musician, Scott Paulson, told her about his dream for the next life of the structure, which a Baptist congregation had built on Beaver Meadow Road in Norwich in 1833, then dismantled and moved to Sharon by ox cart and reassembled in 1875. Paulson envisioned a performance space and school where White River Valley musicians, singers, dancers and visual artists could share their skills, experience and passion with their neighbors, especially the younger ones.

“I thought at the time, ‘Wow! That’s really cool!’ ” Smith, who lives with Paulson in Bethel, said last week. “ ‘I have some connection to this building.’ ”

By 2000, Smith and Paulson were co-founding the Vermont Independent School of the Arts at the Seven Stars Center, so named for the stars in the Big Dipper.

And they weren’t alone: Over the next decade and a half, while Paulson and Smith were teaching young instrumentalists, recruiting artist-teachers, booking visiting performers and upgrading the Seven Stars structure, artists and patrons of the arts in many other corners of the Upper Valley also were adapting community buildings into accessible neighborhood centers of culture, each with its own balance of entertainment and educational missions.

“It’s been fascinating to see how a lot of the old town theaters and buildings have been renovated or are in the process of being turned into them,” said Fairlee resident Lynne Fitzhugh, a former arts administrator from Washington, D.C., who serves on the board of Fairlee Community Arts. “Having a venue like that makes all the difference.”

FCA, formed in 2017, has been riding the momentum of its popular series of summer concerts on the town common into a program centered on the newly renovated auditorium in the Town Hall. It’s the latest in a parade of organizations that have carved performance niches in the shadows of larger, more established institutions such as the Hopkins Center; the opera houses in Lebanon, Claremont and Newport; Woodstock’s Pentangle Council on the Arts; Northern Stage’s Barrette Center for the Arts; and Randolph’s Chandler Center for the Arts.

Other smaller community venues experiencing growth in recent years include Court Street Arts’ Alumni Hall in Haverhill; the West Claremont Center for Music and the Arts; ArtisTree Community Arts Center in South Pomfret; Hartland Community Arts (based at Damon Hall); the BarnArts Center for the Arts in Barnard; Enfield’s Whitney Hall, which is home to Shaker Bridge Theatre; White River Juntion’s Main Street Museum; and the Library Arts Center in Newport. And houses of worship around the Upper Valley are continuing to host musical performances.

Meanwhile, two youth-oriented acting troupes have emerged: Amplified Arts in a second-floor former office space in downtown Claremont and World Under Wonder, which recently moved into a renovated former Grange hall in Weathersfield. They join a community-theater scene in which the long-established Parish Players, in Thetford, and Bradford’s Old Church Theater, are striving to upgrade their own vintage buildings for uses beyond plays.

“I think it’s going to be really interesting to see how it all goes,” Pentangle Executive Director Alita Paine Wilson said last week. “We have a very small population in Woodstock, a lot of it second-homeowners, which creates its own challenges for us. But overall the Upper Valley seems to have enough population for the different communities to be able to support their venues.”

Exhibit A might be Alumni Hall in the historic district of Haverhill, where Court Street Arts hosts concerts, art classes and such gatherings as a “Hogwarts Homecoming” celebration of the Harry Potter novels.

From 1846 to 1891, it served as the Grafton County Courthouse. After the Grafton County complex moved to Woodsville, the building sat vacant until 1919, when Haverhill Academy turned it into a gymnasium and auditorium and renamed it Alumni Hall.

Finally, after Haverhill Academy relocated, the nonprofit Haverhill Heritage Inc. took custody of the by-now nearly condemned brick building, among others in the historic district, in the mid-1990s.

“They did it without a good sense at first of what to do next (with Alumni Hall),” Court Street Arts Executive Director Keisha Luce said last week. “It started as a historic preservation project rather than performing arts.”

Around 2010, performance became the focus, when Haverhill resident and 1950s pop and cabaret singer Betty Johnson helped Court Street launch its music series.

“I think it started with Tom Rush (the veteran folksinger-in-the-wry then living in the Upper Valley), which got a great turnout,” Luce continued. “What really blew us away, shortly after that, was the Battlefield Band, from Scotland. We sold out the house for that.”

As the years went on, performers who filled the 200-seat hall have included Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary and Grammy-winning Americana singer-songwriter Iris Dement. Court Street also has welcomed local acts, among them fiddler and roots-music promoter Patrick Ross of neighboring South Newbury, Vt. The success of the music series, combined with a growth in grants from public and private cultural foundations, have helped Court Street to extend its other arts programs.

“It’s always been a goal to offer programming that’s affordable to everyone in the community,” Luce said. “We’re very, very rural, but we’ve become a regional destination.

“I always think somehow that it’s a miracle that we’re able to do what we do.”

Professional flutist and Claremont native Melissa Richmond speaks the same way about the West Claremont Center for Music and the Arts, which she established smack in the middle of the Great Recession.

“It was a tough time to get started,” Richmond said last week. “I’ve achieved way more than I thought I wanted to when I started.”

After graduating from Stevens High School in 2000, Richmond had gone to Nova Scotia to study music at Dalhousie University, where, she recalled, “I saw musicians come through there that we didn’t have access to in Claremont.” After finishing her master’s degree and returning to Claremont in 2008, Richmond started a series of summer concerts at the 1773-vintage Union Episcopal Church, with its barrel-shaped ceiling.

“It’s an incredible acoustic space,” Richmond said of the church, which continues to serve a congregation in the warmer months. “I grew up in that space. I sang in the choir a few times, and also later I played flute for special events sometimes.”

After three years of hosting special events there with visiting musicians from a wide range of genres, from classical to world music, Richmond started making the church and its neighboring parish hall the home base for what now is a year-round program featuring music lessons for Claremont-area children. And with grants from foundations and sponsorships from area businesses, she’s been able to bring in musicians for longer stays as artists-in-residence. Last summer, clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and pianist Dinuk Wijeratne performed compositions blending Arabic and South Asian rhythms with classical and jazz.

“We need access to this kind of music,” Richmond said. “It’s life-changing.”

On the theatrical side of the performing-arts equation, finding the Parish Players was a revelation to Toni Egger, a veteran television writer and producer who moved to Thetford four years ago. The Players have been staging a wide range of plays at the former Eclipse Grange on Thetford Hill since 1967, all while modernizing the 1850 structure, bit by bit.

“I love the space,” said Egger, now a Parish Players board member who this weekend is directing the Pieces of Work sessions of storytelling at the Eclipse Grange. “It’s so intimate. I just wish we could build new seats that are more comfortable.”

Other forms of comfort are forthcoming: Egger said the Players so far have raised about $30,000, including a grant from the Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation, toward a $75,000 goal to install air conditioning.

“We want to be able to have classes and musical workshops in there and keep going in the summer,” Egger said. “The heat in the last decade has really made that a challenge.”

Kathleen Dolan solved the structural and growth challenges of her ArtisTree Community Arts Center by moving its headquarters from a farmhouse just north of Woodstock village to an all-new complex in South Pomfret village in 2013. In addition to classrooms and studios for visual arts, the complex includes a 30-seat music space called The Hayloft, on the third floor with a picture window framing the village, Suicide Six ski area and surrounding fields.

Since 2017, the view of the village has included a 90-seat theater, which ArtisTree converted from the former Teago Grange Hall. The Grange has sold out most of the summer and fall musicals staged there with professional actors. It’s also available to groups such as BarnArts Center for the Arts, which currently is staging the Sarah Ruhl comedy The Clean House there.

“It’s very cool to see all that comes through our house,” theater programming director Ashley Barrow said last week.

Shortly after taking the reins at the Lebanon Opera House in 2017, Executive Director Joe Clifford started an “On Location” music series at the neighboring First Congregational Church of Lebanon to better schedule a mix of roots-Americana and classical performers who might not fill the opera house’s 800 seats. With its Steinway piano, clear acoustics and 250-year history, the church sanctuary has drawn a number of full houses of 200, the most recent being the Feb. 8 performance by the all-woman Americana trio Lula Wiles.

Under church administrator Brian Clancy, First Congregational’s Music @ the Meetinghouse series hosted 32 performances in 2018, several through the “On Location” series, others with pianist Daniel Weiser’s Classicopia performances and recitals from the neighboring Upper Valley Music Center.

“It was maybe half that when I started working here,” said Clancy, a singer who arrived in 2012. “Honestly, I have had to do very little in the way of recruiting performers. The Upper Valley has such a great music community. They say, ‘Wow! This is a great space!’ We’ve gotten a lot of groups that way, just by word of mouth.”

World-touring pianist Elizabeth Borowsky heard enough praise, after moving to Lebanon in 2015, to schedule recitals at First Congregational for her growing stable of private students. Her appreciation grew while playing piano during Classicopia concerts with Weiser and with other classical musicians.

“The church is elegant enough for a formal recital but far from pretentious,” Borowsky said last week. “That allows both the audience and the performer to feel comfortable and create a dynamic exchange of energy.”

North Haverhill resident and jazz-pop singer Lydia Gray, who with Thetford guitarist Ed Eastridge last summer kicked off an Upper Valley tour in support of their new album at Alumni Hall, thrives on that kind of energy at historic and converted venues around the Upper Valley, whether she’s singing or listening.

“There’s an intimacy to playing in these spaces with all this history,” said Gray, whose mother is Alumni Hall supporter Betty Johnson. “The ghosts there sort of speak to you.

“It enhances the show.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.

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