When Mary Bonhag met Evan Premo during freshman orientation week at the University of Michigan seven years ago, he seemed eerily familiar. They talked music — he plays the double bass, she sings soprano — and then he told her about growing up in Michigan’s Upper Penninsula, regaling her with tales of ice fishing and his family’s folk band.
Suddenly she remembered: She’d heard him the year before on “From the Top,” National Public Radio’s classical music show that features outstanding young musicians. “We started playing music together,” Bonhag recalls. “We played Bach Inventions together … [Music] became a really important part of our relationship.”
Married now and both 25, the pair recently moved to Northfield, Vt., and are laying the foundation for a shared dream: a retreat center for musicians that would include a chamber music series, educational programs, composers-in-residence and a working farm. They call it Scrag Mountain Music.
The debut music series gets under way this weekend, with three concerts by New York City-based cellist Julia MacLaine and Montpelier flutist Karen Kevra: Friday night at Green Mountain Girls’ Farm in Northfield, Saturday night at Langdon Street Café in Montpelier and Sunday afternoon at the Warren United Church. They’ll present two more programs — at the same three locations — in February and April. Musicians will represent a diverse range of styles, with a focus on 20th- and 21st-century composers.
The choice of unconventional, intimate performance spaces, as opposed to concert halls, is intentional; the couple hopes to draw people who wouldn’t normally spring for classical music tickets. And this isn’t the first time they’ve tried it.
Before moving to Vermont last fall, Bonhag was at Bard College working toward a master’s; Premo was in a two-year fellowship program at Carnegie Hall in New York City. On weekends he’d play chamber music, often his own compositions, at clubs in the East Village. “It works really well, because some [contemporary chamber music] is really out there,” Bonhag says. “It’s kind of blending with folk, pop, indie rock — techno, even.”
But neither Premo nor Bonhag, who grew up in New Hampshire, is a city person, so they wrapped up their respective programs and headed north. “We were looking for a place to live that would allow us to homestead and make music in a rural setting,” Bonhag says.
They’ll make use of their urban connections to pump talent and enthusiasm into their fledgling music series. Both invited all their professional musician friends to come for a weekend and perform in Vermont alongside local players. “We want to be a bridge between musicians living here and our friends in New York City who are starved for fresh air,” says Bonhag.
“We’re trying to make it work as classical musicians, without having other jobs,” she admits.
So far, so good. They’re applying for nonprofit status and various grants — their first came from the Northfield nonprofit Seaver Fund. Bonhag and Premo will pay their guest artists, but not as much as they know the artists are worth — yet. The couple’s motto for audiences: “Come as you are. Pay what you can.”
Earlier this month, in an effort to test-drive the intimate, down-home style envisioned for the series, Bonhag and Premo performed in the barn at Green Mountain Girls’ Farm. By the time the audience arrived, the couple had already laid a table full of home-baked desserts. After half an hour of schmoozing and snacking, they divided the audience into small groups and gave them each a poem to read and discuss.
Then Premo heaved up his double bass, Bonhag took her place beside him, and they broke into song: one of Premo’s original compositions, based on the four poems the audience had just read.
The idea, they say, is to facilitate a more meaningful and personal experience for each person in the audience. In Bonhag’s mind, there are two distinct ways of listening to music: through the head and through the heart.
“We’d like to get this right through to the heart,” she says.