Helping artists grow: Gill’s Antenna Cloud Farm shares setting for concerts, retreats

  • Judd Greenstein and Michi Wiancko with their daughter Aki in the music room at Antenna Cloud Farm in Gill. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Michi Wiancko and Judd Greenstein at Antenna Cloud Farm in Gill. August 28, 2017 Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Michi Wiancko and Judd Greenstein at Antenna Cloud Farm in Gill. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Published: 8/31/2017 10:32:40 PM

GILL — On a hilltop where Wengrove Farm’s cows once roamed and made milk, Antenna Cloud Farm is beginning to bring together an array of musicians to rest and make music here and in places like area schools and Franklin County jail.

Juilliard-trained violinist Michi Wiancko, who bought the 100-acre former dairy farm with her husband, composer Judd Greenstein, is also resting — for at least a few minutes — beside her vegetable garden, with a sweeping view of the Connecticut River and Turners Falls in the distance. She’s taking stock of a career that’s taken her to playing concerts around the world and now settling down to set up a retreat for artists.

“It’s run the spectrum from kind of like a blissful, relaxed place where every day we feel in awe of where we are,” says the mother of a 2½-year-old, who moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., with Greenstein three years ago and recently began hosting musician friends to relax and play an end-of-retreat concert. “Some days, we’re just completely overwhelmed, because it’s a steep learning curve.”

The grass had gotten out of hand over the past couple of weeks, for example, and the Husqvarna rider mower has broken down for the third time this summer. With Greenstein away for the premiere of a ballet he’s scored at a Sun Valley festival to mark the eclipse, Wiancko, who enjoyed auto mechanics class in high school, is intent on fixing the mower herself.

“It’s like a rite of passage. If I can fix this mower myself, I’m learning something that feels very symbolically important to me,” says Wiancko, who’s played violin with the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Symphony and who last year performed a Steve Reich premiere in Carnegie Hall, toured China, Korea and Taiwan with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble and appeared with the band EL VY on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”

On Sunday afternoon, she’ll play a solo concert at Antenna Cloud — the third concert there this season. Performed on solo acoustic and electronic violin — including a “loop machine” on which she can accompany herself and even simulate a quartet — the music will include a combination of classical, folk and electronic, reflecting her own tastes but also the eclectic nature of the series of concerts that began with a July 8 concert by her cellist brother Paul and violist Ayane Kozasa and a July 29 concert of contemporary music by Eliza Bagg.

Sunday’s concert is sold out, but there’s a wait list, and people are invited to listen, picnic-style, on the lawn if they bring blankets or folding chairs.

The two remaining concerts this season, an Oct. 1 session featuring chamber works, and Oct. 14, a trio performance that promises to blur the lines between jazz, folk and classical music, will also feature musicians who are the couple’s friends.

“We love experimentation, bringing together different types of musicians and different genres,” says Wianko. “So if you come to every concert of the festival, you’re not going to hear the same type of thing twice. It’s just an eclectic mix, just the things me and Judd love and the people we love. The dream is to kind of provide this experience to artists who we really believe in, who are doing things that are unique and really interesting, and then create an opportunity for the community to be a part of it.”

Beginning at age 3

Wiancko, who began playing Suzuki violin in southern California at age 3 and piano at age 5, credits her mother — a viola player and chorister — for letting her explore the kind of music she wanted and even, at age 8 or 9, to announce “I was done. I’d had it with being the only person who wasn’t allowed to go out and play. I had to practice and everyone else just went to the beach, a block away, and I just had this profound sense of injustice that I had to practice.”

Ultimately, after she returned to violin as “the most portable (and) the closest to thing to my voice,” Wiancki studied at Cleveland Institute of Music and earned her master’s at Juilliard. She had her solo debut at Carnegie Hall after winning a 2002 competition, and being featured as an “artist to watch” on the cover of Symphony Magazine in 2007.

But her intense touring schedule nationally and internationally left her feeling disconnected and lonely, traveling between cities she could barely experience or even recall.

“I was thinking, ‘This is what I’ve trained for and where my life has led. This is every violinist’s dream, then why am I deeply unhappy?’ I had deep sense of dissatisfaction, that I wasn’t really creative in what I was doing, I wasn’t feeling fulfilled.”

She began playing more chamber music, performing at venues from the Kennedy Center and New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival to the Sydney Opera House and touring with the Los Angeles Piano Quartet, Musicians from Marlboro and Mark Morris Dance Group.

Then she began writing her own music, singing and performing with Kono Michi (“The Path”), her “chamber-pop project” of original songs and covers for string quartet, vocals, drums and bass that have aired on NPR and the BBC. After taking a break from that, she now plans to return, since “compositionally, what’s exciting me the most right now.”

She adds, “Now I finally feel like I’ve found the voice that feels most authentically mine,” and says Sunday’s 3 p.m. concert will be “an opportunity to explore the somewhat newfound feeling of identity. Now I feel like I can let go of some of these old voices in my head that I kind of grew up with: ‘You need to be this and this, to play this kind of music, these are the halls you need to play in, these are the accolades you need to receive.’”

“Receive,” like “transmit” is how they arrived at the “Antenna Cloud” name, evoking those beautiful natural forms that hover over their hillside.

A different vibe

Greenstein, a graduate of Williams, Yale and Princeton and a recipient of fellowships from Tanglewood Music Institute, Bang on a Can Summer Institute, Six Point Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists and Sundance New Frontier Story Lab, has composed works for the Minnesota Orchestra Alabama and North Carolina symphonies and other orchestras, also promotes new music in New York as co-director of New Amsterdam Presents and New Amsterdam records and Ecstatic Music Festival as well as Zurich’s Apples and Olives festival of new music.

“We think this is an incredibly special place,” he says. “When I tell people we moved to western Mass., everyone in New York and Boston assume we mean the Berkshires, where people think … there are cultural institutions that are basically halfway extensions of New York and Boston cultures.”

After the Brooklyn couple had been staying with friends in Pelham for a while and then decided to relocate, renting a house on the edge of a Hadley cornfield, they decided to find their own place in Franklin County, he said.

“We really wanted to be in a place that challenged us to accept not just the cultural norms we’d come to grow up on. We were looking for a place that seemed culturally rich but not known to us in that way, and therefore was new. The vibe in Franklin County and the Greenfield area felt very different from anything we were encountering in Hampshire County, and we wanted to be part of it.”

So far, they’ve managed to attract sell-out crowds in their huge living room, which has room for 55 to 60 people. But their plans include converting an old barn into a concert hall for as many as 200.

For the visiting musicians, who stay in a second house on the property, the former Mackin estate, Wiancko says, “Part of it’s all about solitude and having your space and privacy, with meals delivered … doing whatever you want to do in your own space … And then, at end of the week to have that culminate in a community event, where now they’re just sharing everything.”

She enjoys preparing guests’ meals from her garden, and describes the intermissions and after-concert receptions as a way for performers and audience to mingle and socialize — and so far they’ve done so, first with a fireworks display from Barton Cove and then with a spectacular sunset.

Wiancko and Greenstein see the retreats and festivals as “a work in process” as they try to figure out how they can make the property pay for itself, by eventually hosting an Airbnb, possibly with small cabins around their 50-acre wooded section for musicians, and a retreat that can be open to “writers and artists all of kinds” as well musicians.

Yet even now, Antenna Cloud is having an impact, with performers asked to do some form of community service. So far this season, that’s meant playing for young Musica Franklin students at Sheffield Elementary School and working with inmates at Franklin County House of Correction.

“I’m really excited, after a lifetime touring around the country and often around the world, I find the most satisfaction performing not necessarily based on audience size, or venue status,” she says. Playing with her brother and Kozasa at the jail, she found, “Just to play a concert where you feel you’re directly communicating with people, and they’re receiving whatever it is you’re trying to say … no matter what the circumstance is … if that connection is there, that’s what I’m looking for, and why I do what I want to do.”

Improvising with inmates, a couple of who joined in on guitar, and some of whom requested some Mozart, some Beethoven and if they knew “Star Wars,” Wiancko tried out her loop pedal and, laying down some loops collaborated with a couple of the guys, who’d written some rap lyrics to rap over what she’d played. “We’d kind of play these songs together, and they sounded pretty good,” she says. “I was thinking, maybe I should do an album with these guys from the jail.”

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