When Mary Bonhag and her husband, Evan Premo, moved to Vermont from Red Hook, N.Y., in 2010, locals took notice. Both were good-looking, in their mid-twenties and finely trained as classical musicians — Bonhag as a soprano, Premo as a double-bass player. Within a year of their arrival, they had launched a concert series in the Mad River Valley with the ease of seasoned professionals.
Bonhag and Premo named their enterprise Scrag Mountain Music, after the peak near Northfield that the couple could see from their first cottage. Scrag's mission was twofold: to provide a retreat for their wide circle of urban musician friends and to make classical music accessible to everyone. Its motto: "Come as you are. Pay what you can."
If that sounds idealistic, this unusual couple has made idealism work for them. They have created community-supported chamber music in a rural state and changed the way their audiences experience classical concerts. Scrag has become an integral part of Vermont's music community, even influencing the way the state's other classical groups approach their audiences.
Strong as a team, the spouses are in-demand performers individually, as well. Premo, who is also a composer, spends more than a quarter of the year traveling around the U.S. for residencies and as far afield as London and Abu Dhabi for gigs with a chamber music collective called Decoda. Meanwhile, Bonhag has become Vermont's go-to soprano soloist for such groups as the Burlington Choral Society and Capital City Concerts in Montpelier, giving some 25 non-Scrag performances a year. She also conducts the Mad River Chorale. All this while being the primary caregiver for the couple's two sons: Glen, 3 and a half, and George, 15 months.
"I feel like a pioneer, like Laura Ingalls Wilder," Bonhag joked during a recent singing practice in the home she and Premo bought in Marshfield last year. "I have no model for this."
Yet she is doing "this," and with a sense of adventure. "What would you like to do with your one wild and precious life?" her cellphone voicemail asks. Bonhag is making up her own answer as she goes along.
Next week, Scrag Mountain Music will present a concert called "Water, Women and Whales" in Randolph, Montpelier and Warren. Bonhag, who will sing works by George Crumb, Robert Schumann and Kaija Saariaho, has been squeezing in near-daily practices at home.
Last Monday was a typical one for the singer, aside from the presence of a reporter, who was following her around in hopes of answering the question, How does she do it?
Premo was in the Adirondacks for a five-day teaching gig. In the morning, Bonhag had driven Glen to preschool in Montpelier with George in tow (50 minutes round-trip). At noon, Bonhag and toddler retrieved Glen (another 50 minutes), managing to get groceries on the way. Sometimes the children nap in the car during these trips, their mother said; that day, they did not.
Later, Bonhag would have a lengthy vocal practice and a quick dinner, then head to Moretown for a two-hour rehearsal with the Mad River Chorale. She would get home around 10 p.m. A babysitter would be with the boys for seven hours.
"It's really a full day. And my days are all like that," the singer told Seven Days with a laugh, pulling diapers from the grocery bags she'd deposited on the floor.
Bonhag, 30, has blond hair, a wide smile and graceful posture. That last feature comes from years of practicing the Alexander Technique, a head-neck-torso alignment strategy that dates from the 1890s. Bonhag's ease of movement, combined with her seamless dual conversations with children and reporter, gave her a calm, unflustered presence.
"I think we're going to cook that first, George," Bonhag said cheerfully to her younger son; on the floor, he'd pulled a yam from a bag and begun to gnaw on it. Meanwhile, Glen, who had proudly taken on the task of putting groceries away, expressed delight at a red bell pepper. "I got that for you, Glen, because I know you love them," his mother said.
A row of kitchen windows overlooks the rolling hills of Bonhag and Premo's 45-acre plot. Pointing out the forest of tall pines that begins not far from the house, Bonhag said, "I feel so protected here."
Immersion in nature seems necessary to her spiritual and bodily health. An avid gardener and herbalist, she's looking forward this summer to developing a vegetable plot, raising chickens and putting in an orchard — that is, after Premo clears a swath of trees in front of the house. "We have big plans in terms of homesteading," Bonhag said.
As if to verify his mother's statement, Glen pulled a jar of home-pickled beans from the pantry and asked, "Can we eat these, too, Mama?"
This homey environment also seems to nurture visiting Scrag musicians, who stay with Bonhag and Premo, at neighbors' houses or at a nearby inn. Cooking and eating together is a crucial aspect of Scrag residencies, which the series has offered from the start.
"More than one [player] has said, 'Wow, this has revived my passion for music,'" Bonhag said.
New York-based pianist David Kaplan, who just performed for the University of Vermont's Lane Series, will arrive at the couple's house on Monday, May 16, for his second residency with Scrag. Toward the end of his weeklong stay, he'll accompany Bonhag in "Water, Women and Whales."
In a phone call, Kaplan recalled how, last summer, his hosts hiked the property with their troupe of musicians, took them for a dip in their stream, and treated them to a bonfire one night and slow-cooked pork another. During rehearsals, the group took breaks so that Mary could breastfeed George.
"They're the Helen and Scott Nearing of Vermont musicians," quipped Shelburne-based pianist Paul Orgel, referring to the pioneering midcentury back-to-the-land couple. Orgel accompanied Bonhag on songs by Fauré, Chausson and Wolf at a Burlington concert in April. In that program, Orgel said, "Mary approached the 19th-century poetry with the same unjaded romanticism that she and Evan bring to their life in the mountains of Marshfield."
Bonhag grounds both her singing and her enthusiasm for rural living in a Christian spiritualism. She attends Congregational churches and feels a strong connection to what she calls "God's creation."
"When I moved to Vermont, I felt like I could speak my heart for the first time," she said. "People would make space for that."
That's because Vermonters pay attention to the land and the rhythms of nature, she explained. In Montpelier, she has found a sympathetic community of "herbalists and people willing to talk about things of the heart and spiritual matters."
Growing up in a rural part of Lebanon, N.H., Bonhag got her first introduction to music by singing in the church choir; her mother was the organist. That initiation has shaped her entire approach to musical performance.
"For me, singing is a spiritual experience," she said. "I feel like I am a channel for the music — something flows through me and out to the audience. It's not about me; I'm a conduit for the music and the words and the story I'm portraying."
That's true whether the music is religious or not, but it's fortuitous, Bonhag said, that much of the Western repertoire for voice is Christian in origin. "Classical music comes from the church," she said. "That makes it easy for me ... The works are so comforting."
Bonhag believes the only way to truly channel a piece of music is to memorize it. That's a challenge for her these days, with so many demands on her time. So she's learned to make her practice "streamlined and efficient," she said. When she can manage memorization, she added, it makes singing "amazing."
"You get to empathize with everything, so that you feel like you're really singing those words," Bonhag said. "It's you."
Dick Riley, who leads the Burlington Choral Society, has picked Bonhag to sing solo soprano at nearly every concert — from his first with the group in 2012 to last month's performance of parts of Haydn's The Seasons. (He is also on Scrag's board.)
"I want to come across to the public as someone broad in his tastes," Riley said with a chuckle, explaining his choice, "but the fact is, she's just a thrill to work with. She communicates with her voice, with her face, with her body — she embodies music."
While "some sopranos sound the same no matter what they're singing," Riley added, "Mary has a remarkable capacity to learn a huge variety of music and represent the style of them all."
That was equally evident to Montpelier flutist Karen Kevra, the founder-director of Capital City Concerts, who played "tricky, enigmatic French" duets with Bonhag in Scrag's inaugural concert. She has commissioned Premo to write a song cycle for soprano, piano, flute and double bass for CCC's next season. Bonhag, Kevra said, "has a flute-like quality to her singing, and I've been told I have a singing quality to my playing, so it sounded like a duet for the same two instruments."
"Mary doesn't sound like anyone else," declared Kaplan, who first accompanied Bonhag on Aaron Copland's "Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson" for a concert with the former Burlington Ensemble. She has the warm sound and dramatic range of any good lyric soprano, he said, but "a special quality to her voice" makes it difficult to compare her with other singers.
That uniqueness, Kaplan suggested, has to do with the unorthodox professional path Bonhag and Premo chose. The couple met the week before both started studying music at the University of Michigan. (Premo composed Seasonal Song Cycle for soprano and double bass, the first of many pieces he would create for that unusual pairing, shortly after meeting his future wife.) They married after graduation and moved to Red Hook, N.Y., where both could easily access more training in the New York City area. Bonhag earned her master's in vocal performance at Bard College, in a program founded and run by soprano Dawn Upshaw. Meanwhile, Premo, originally from the rural Upper Peninsula of Michigan, completed the Carnegie Hall Academy fellowship program, where he played under the baton of Simon Rattle and others.
Yet, despite this elite background, the couple chose not to then "move to New York and do the whole game," as Kaplan put it. Instead, recalled Bonhag, the couple stunned their musician friends by moving to small-town Vermont, where they aimed to make a living bringing classical music — much of it new, difficult or both — to locals in accessible ways.
Scrag concerts take place in casual locales, including farm barns, art spaces and library rooms, where attendees aren't expected to dress up. Musicians and audiences converse freely with one another between works during both "very open rehearsals" and concerts; the musicians encourage audience interaction in their introductions to each work. Families are welcome at both; no one is shushed. And there's no obligation to pay — a model that, Bonhag said, has consistently netted an average of $15 per audience member.
"We made that up," she explained of the payment model, which has since been adopted by Paul Gambill's Montpelier-based Community Engagement Lab and a salon series in Bristol cofounded by pianist Cynthia Huard.
The idea of bringing difficult music to nontraditional audiences came in part from two residencies Bonhag did at Yellow Barn, a summer festival and residency retreat in Putney. Artistic director Seth Knopp "just programs what he wants to program, so the whole town has this incredibly sophisticated taste in music," she said.
Scrag has had a similar effect on central Vermonters. "Over the last six years, I've noticed people's ears have become more receptive to new music," Bonhag remarked. Audiences even seemed to enjoy a "really thorny" Elliott Carter quartet, she added.
As Montpelier resident Nancy Sherman, who has been to nearly every Scrag concert, put it, "They make [new music] accessible and inviting; they dramatize it. Even if you don't know what you're listening to, they perform in such small venues that you're always four or five seats away, so you see their expressions. They make contemporary music not scary."
For Scrag's final concert of the season, in August, audiences will hear contemporary music by Premo. Inspired by the success of Vermont composer Erik Nielsen's revival of his opera A Fleeting Animal last fall, Premo is reviving his 2006 chamber opera The Diaries of Adam and Eve, which is based on a Mark Twain text. Bonhag will sing the lead.
Nielsen, who lives in Brookfield, noted a small but growing movement within the American classical world to "meet people where they are, not just stand up in a tux and play." Montréal-based cellist Matt Haimovitz helped pioneer classical performance in nontraditional venues, for example, and the Juilliard School in Manhattan promotes the strategy in its outreach program.
"These ideas have been tried out elsewhere," Nielsen said, "but Mary and Evan have really made them stick here. They are so positive and generous. Just the idea of coming here and saying, 'Anyone can come, you can dress as you like, and you can give us what you can afford' — my goodness, it was revolutionary."
After Bonhag had finally coaxed both boys to bed and the babysitter had arrived, the soprano headed to the practice room to nurture her instrument.
The long, sparely furnished space is painted in warm green with windows on three sides. A harmonium that Bonhag gave her husband for his birthday sits near one end of the piano. At the other, a spinning wheel — Premo's birthday gift to her — is ensconced beside a basket of newly spun wool skeins. The room's sliding barn doors do nothing to muffle sounds, and soon enough the boys had awoken and could be heard outside.
Bonhag said that, ideally, she would practice here for two hours every day. "Part of the whole artist-mother thing is really trying to be gentle on myself," she added. "How mothers take care of themselves — that's the thing no one talks about. I have no model for how to balance everything." Bonhag's mother started working as a school music teacher after Bonhag and her siblings were grown.
Bonhag may lack models for what she's doing, but, according to Kevra, she "balances it all so wonderfully — sometimes literally, like, one child in one arm and one in the other."
Bonhag currently does not have a voice teacher — unusual for a professional singer at her level. But she has been developing her voice on her own, she said, paying particular attention to her body. And her body has also changed her voice: Her pregnancies darkened her timbre, Bonhag says, and widened her rib cage. That allowed extra room for the diaphragm, which singers use to support their breath and project their voice.
"During my pregnancy with Glen, there was a point where I felt I could sing forever [before drawing a breath]," she recalled. "My rib cage had expanded, but he hadn't filled in the space yet. My phrases were longer."
Bonhag began her practice lying on her back on a yoga mat and stretching while uttering the sounds "miya, miya, miya." While moving through upward dog and downward dog, she switched to "vee-o-vee-o-vee."
"Getting my body into a place where I can sing is almost more important than doing a lot of singing," she explained.
When she shifted to more conventional warm-ups — singing scales while standing at the piano and picking out ascending notes — Bonhag's voice was so powerful that the room seemed to shrink. Yet she appeared to be making little effort.
"I start with a full sound because that's what engages my whole system and body," she said. More than once during her practices, Bonhag related, her children have entered the room, only to run out again shouting, "Too loud!"
Next, she sat at the piano and sang through a song from Schumann's cycle "Frauenliebe und -leben" while accompanying herself capably, even stopping on a passage to correct her fingering. ("A singer needs to be responsible for all the parts," she explained.) "Now I'll practice it for real," she went on, and stood to sing while limiting her playing to left-handed chords. Bonhag's singing was passionate, the German clearly articulated.
The soprano moved on to the Crumb and Saariaho, enthusiastically introducing each piece. "Crumb is both ethereal and earthy. I could sing Crumb forever," Bonhag said of the composer of unusual sounds, which include the whale-like tones of "Vox Balaenae." She pulled a stack of oversize scores from a bookshelf and opened another Crumb piece to show his atypical handwritten notation style: two musical staffs curving toward each other to form the shape of an eye.
The Saariaho work, called "Mirage," is based on a Mazatec shaman's chants recorded in Mexico and translated into English. "I am a woman who flies," it begins. In some passages, every word is sung with a glissando, which Bonhag demonstrated in a slow tempo, drawing out each sliding note.
"Mirage" was written for the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, whom Bonhag once saw perform in Ann Arbor, Mich. Though the theater seated more than a thousand, "I felt like she was singing to me," Bonhag recalled ecstatically.
Vermont audiences might say the same of Bonhag's singing. How she accomplishes that is a mystery even to her, despite all her training.
"Singing is so mystical and magical and strange," she said, "because it's all about your imagination, how the sounds you hear in your head somehow come out of your mouth."
After eating a rushed dinner and indulging Glen in a quick game of hide-and-seek, Bonhag jumped in her minivan for the 45-minute drive to the Mad River Chorale rehearsal in Moretown. She made it hard for a reporter to follow, whipping around curves at more than 50 miles per hour.
Once arrived, after warming up the chorus, Bonhag started her singers on Maurice Duruflé's "Ubi caritas et amor," an a cappella piece that was on the program for the group's spring concert. "She just wants to have you hear the most beautiful song first," joked a bass singer.
After a bit of talk about "imagining" the sounds, Bonhag instructed the chorus to sing the piece again. At the end, she declared appreciatively, "Woo, that's the best we've done it yet, and" — she played the final note on the piano — "yes, we stayed in tune!"
Even so, Bonhag added, the singers needed to do another pass on the section they had "slogged through."
This time, the chorus pulled off a beautifully unified chord on the final "amen." After a spell of silence, Bonhag exclaimed, "Nice, nice!" and the singers exhaled in a murmur of wonder and agreement. Music had been made.
"Water, Women and Whales," presented by Scrag Mountain Music, with Mary Bonhag, Catherine Gregory, David Kaplan, Evan Premo and Saeunn Thorsteinsdóttir, Friday, May 20, 7:30 p.m., First Light Studios in Randolph; Saturday, May 21, 7:30 p.m., Unitarian Church of Montpelier; and Sunday, May 22, 4 p.m., Warren United Church of Christ. Pay what you can. scragmountainmusic.org
The original print version of this article was headlined "On a High Note"