Interview with Barnes Ensemble Co-Founders Katherine Skovira and Robert Whalen

JACK Quartet (Photo by Shervin Lainez)

From September 30-October 8, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia will host the first rehearsals and performances of its new contemporary music ensemble, The Barnes Ensemble, led by wife and husband team Katherine Skovira (Academy 2014) and Robert Whalen. In its first iteration, the Barnes Ensemble will consist of a group of 20 String Fellows led by the JACK Quartet, and more than half the participants will be alumni of the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY. Jeffrey Young asked Katherine and Robert a few questions about the program.

Jeffrey: What is the Barnes Ensemble and how did it come to be?

Katherine: This is a great story! We are constantly amazed how all of this developed. The short answer is: a lot of hard work and research, and a few miracles.

Robert: The Barnes Ensemble coalesced after years of research and performing, both in the US and abroad. Katherine and I have been working together since our days in the Cornell Music Department, where we worked with Steven Stucky, actively performing a great deal of new music. I founded the Cornell Avant-garde Ensemble (or CAgE) and our work in new music continued through masters and doctoral degrees, culminating in working with James Dillon in the University of Minnesota’s Contemporary Music Workshop. We completed our doctoral work in 2012, working with and learning from many wonderful mentors, including Augusta Read Thomas at the University of Chicago and Lorin Maazel.  We saw a great need for institutional adaptations in order to better support composers and their art. Chamber musicians, as Lucerne knows well, listen, work, and perform differently, and we view an ensemble model with chamber music as its heart and soul as our ideal. We believe every player in the Ensemble should have opportunities to perform as soloists, in chamber music, and in large ensembles, and that this structure also exponentially expands the body of repertoire we can program on any given concert.  This felt like a necessary structural change.  Further, orchestras that do program contemporary music do not always allocate enough rehearsal time to really develop and refine a new work. We created a structure that allows intricate new works to receive adequate rehearsal time, and opportunities for players to workshop and receive feedback, and perform the works in educational settings all in advance of the final concert.

Katherine: When we came to the Barnes purely as spectators in 2015, we were stunned by the acoustic and space – as you can imagine from knowing any of the architecture of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, another husband and wife team, the building itself is absolutely beautiful. Even more exciting was the acoustic of the Annenberg Court, a large main space that precedes the Collection galleries, with its mixed materials of wood, Israeli sandstone and silk wall hangings.  We were amazed to learn later that no one had consulted an acoustician – it was a beautifully resonant space for unamplified sound, naturally.

Robert: We were listening to the audio tour in the main gallery of Deputy Director and Curator, Martha Lucy, who is also a renowned Renoir scholar, speak about Dr. Barnes’s unique way of displaying art, which he called his “wall ensembles,” when a lightning bolt went off for both of us at the exact same time. We turned to each other, our jaws both dropped, and we just knew that all of our work and research would happen right there at the Barnes, as the Barnes Ensemble.

Katherine: Dr. Barnes believed that an expertly crafted metal lock or spoon was equally an expression of human creativity as an Impressionist painting, and he juxtaposed pieces of antiquity against (at his time) contemporary pieces by Renoir or Cezanne to illustrate connections between the works of art, to challenge, and to invite responses.

We proposed this to the Barnes in 2016 and by that summer were developing it with Martha Lucy and Thom Collins, the President of the Barnes Foundation. Both were incredibly supportive as we began to introduce musical programming to the Barnes community, first as solo concerts that began in January 2017 and focused on fragments of sound and silence, sung and spoken text, and works by living composers. This was all leading up to the Barnes Ensemble premiere festival that begins Saturday September 30 with the official concert debut on October 8!

Jeffrey: What do you expect this first session of the Ensemble will be like for the musicians involved and for your potential audience members?

Robert: The Barnes Foundation has a long history with music going back since its founding, because Dr. Barnes adored music – it was his first and greatest love and deeply informed even how he taught about art. He was a self-educated man who put himself through school boxing, and he was a fighter. He was constantly pushing the Philadelphia community and his neighbor Leopold Stokowski on to program more contemporary music and to support living composers and musicians, so you can imagine that he would welcome the establishment of this new contemporary-music focused orchestral ensemble enthusiastically.

Audiences here at the Barnes are very curious – they are culturally engaged, willing to try all sorts of things, and eager to ask questions and to learn. That’s the culture that Dr. Barnes felt was the most important, that if you could challenge yourself with education, you could become a more positive, engaged member of democracy, something we all need right now. Our expectation is that it will be a very intense nine days, working with great musicians, touching the lives of many children, and establishing a foundation for great future growth, both for the Barnes community and more importantly for contemporary music as a whole.

Jeffrey: Katherine, how did your experience at the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY inform the path you’ve taken, including in creating this ensemble?

Katherine: I love what Lucerne does and deeply respect the programming and energy that goes into the Festival, and I felt so incredibly fortunate to be a part of the Lucerne Festival Academy when it invited vocalists in 2014. I wouldn’t know where to begin to describe the effect it’s had – Lucerne was a launching point in a way, exactly what we are doing with the Ensemble, which is very much inspired by the Lucerne model, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and the work of Claudio Abbado and Pierre Boulez. In fact, when we invite Steven Schick in 2018 to lead the Barnes Ensemble, I’ll be performing Marteau and will absolutely be channeling what I learned in Lucerne from my mentors and colleagues.

Working with Sir Simon Rattle and Barbara Hannigan in 2014, the continued relationships, the amazing colleagues from that year, and all that Lucerne is – it was a beautiful experience that will always stay with me.

Jeffrey: Where would you like to position the Barnes Ensemble in today’s contemporary music scene?

Robert: We’ve been advised by key voices in the American musical community that what we are doing is redefining a paradigm and that people find this very interesting. It’s not so much that we are trying to position the Barnes Ensemble in a particular scene – we’re rewriting the scene as a matter of necessity. Not to shake up the situation, but rather because we think the reach could be very broad, deeply collaborative, and reaching new audiences. If our audiences can become more interested in building connections, thinking about art, and really listening, then we’re accomplishing our goal not just for ourselves but for music in general.

Katherine: This is really a coming home for the Barnes Foundation with its musical history – Dr. Barnes had a Director of Music Education, gave concerts, had a Steinway and a Ruggieri violin, and was always challenging the system not to create trouble but to bring art to people and to support young artists and bring art to the community. He actually gave out more musical scholarships than in the visual arts – meaning that all the classes taught in his galleries, a tradition that continues, are just a part of his great support of human artistry.

Robert: Actually, Katherine and I are co-teaching a class this fall with Martha Lucy, “20th Century Art and Music,” at the Barnes Foundation, which looks deeper into the relationship of these two parallel art forms, and classes on “Decoding Barnes Ensembles” have become very popular. These initiatives may not be defining our reach in the musical sense, but certainly show a lot of activity around what Dr. Barnes’s ensembles are and what the Barnes Ensemble itself will accomplish.

Jeffrey: What role do you think the Barnes Ensemble in particular and contemporary music in general can play in society?

Katherine: We feel that every musician has a mandate to create more space for art. Every person wants to find a role in life and musicians are no different – we love music and must seek to articulate the ‘why’ behind that love. Even more important is the progress of arts advocacy and access. The Barnes Ensemble works to bring music to people at three important junctures: school children with less access to art and music, audience members who are curious but may not have experienced a depth of contemporary music, and young professional contemporary musicians who interact with both of these groups. In a way, we’re building a bridge, and that bridge is for everyone.

Robert: Everything we do with the Barnes Ensemble is fundamentally about two things: education and advocacy for the composers and music of our time. This principle is illustrated vividly in our partnership with Play on, Philly!, the remarkable el sistema program founded by Stanford Thompson. In addition to our site visits during the festival weeks, we are developing a contemporary music ensemble with their students and are working to strengthen and build their student composition program. We believe that composition must be taught as a fundamental skill, and that learning to play an instrument without learning the skills to compose or improvise is like learning how to read but not how to write. Inasmuch as Dr. Barnes believed that the appreciation of art could lead to improved critical thinking and thereby a more just democracy, we believe that supporting the expressive voice and creative impulse is essential to the very existence of our art form.

September 30 – October 8: Rehearsals and coachings with Barnes Ensemble String Fellows, JACK Quartet, Composers-in-Residence Chaya Czernowin and Eric Wubbels, and the Barnes Artistic Staff


October 1: Cello/Bass Masterclass with Jay Campbell, Free Library of Philadelphia
October 2 – 5: School Visits to Philadelphia regional schools, Barnes Foundation
October 3: Quartet Masterclass with the JACK Quartet, Free Library
October 4: Open Rehearsal Performance for 300 Schoolchildren, Barnes Foundation
October 4: Chamber Concert “Nature / Renewed”, The Curtis Institute Gould Hall
October 5: Violin Masterclass with Austin Wulliman, Christopher Otto, Barnes Foundation
October 6: Violin Masterclass with Austin Wulliman and Christopher Otto, Free Library
October 6: Viola Composer Masterclass with John Richards, Free Library
October 6: First Friday Break Out Performance, Barnes Foundation
October 7: Barnes Ensemble String Fellows Jam Session, Free Library
October 7: Composer Masterclass with Chaya Czernowin, University of Pennsylvania
October 8: Barnes Ensemble Premiere Concert, Barnes Foundation

For more information, please visit

Listen and learn on the Barnes’s podcast Verso “Inside the Barnes Ensemble: A Conversation with its Founders” here.

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