By Nan Lincoln
Special to The Ellsworth American
SURRY — Once upon a time, an unusual and rather wondrous man named Walter Nowick came to this rural Maine town to start a working farm and Zen center there.
The Juilliard-trained pianist had served as a soldier in the Pacific theater in World War II. He also was a spiritual seeker, studying Rinzai Yoga at the age of 16 in Japan, where he taught piano and voice too.
In 1965, after his own teacher died, Walter came to a farm he bought on Surry’s Morgan Bay Road and began inviting students who were interested in learning and practicing his form of Zen Buddhism. Several of his students from Japan followed him to Maine, and others from here and abroad, drawn by the dual disciplines of music and spiritual guidance. His followers settled with their families on the farm where they were expected to work as well as meditate.
Among them was a young musician and musical therapist from New York. Alan Wittenberg arrived in the summer of 1982. Come August, the pianist will have been at the farm, which he now owns and has run, for 40 years.
“It occurred to me as a young man, whose primary interests were wine, women and song, that I was not happy, and needed to make a change in direction,” Alan recalls. “Within days of arriving, I knew I was in the presence of greatness— that something magic was happening here.”
Part of that magic was Walter’s increasing focus on the musical part of his life, which in 1985 culminated in the creation of the Surry Opera Company. Walter invited local folks to join together to sing some of the great classical operas. At first, the venue for all this ambitious music-making was a small hay barn on the property, where folks sat on bales of hay, chickens wandered in and out during a performance, pigeons roosted in the rafters and Walter accompanied on his gleaming black grand piano. Before long he was taking his operas on the road and on the wing overseas.
Still, Alan says, it was a blow to him when Walter resigned his leadership position at the Zen center when he found it too taxing to sustain his spiritual teaching with his new mission — and it was a mission — to heal the troubled world through music.
“Walter felt he could no longer reconcile sitting on his bottom on a cushion every morning,” Alan recollected, “when he was increasingly was drawn to create the kind of harmony that could only be expressed by music.”
“And don’t we all need that now?” he adds, rather sorrowfully, referring to the current state of the world.
Eventually Wittenberg got on board with this “harmonic conversion,” joining Walter and his troupe of opera singers when they traveled to Washington, D.C., the then Soviet Union, Japan, Germany and Paris. So on board, in fact, that when Walter died at age 87, in 2013, he left the farm and his musical mission to his protégé.
Alan acknowledges that it has been both a great honor and a burden to carry this banner forward. But looking at all he has accomplished in nearly a decade, it’s hard to imagine that Walter would be anything but delighted.
For one thing the Music Barn, which happens to have surprisingly good acoustics, has been spruced up. Audiences no longer have to sit on hay bales and the bird life has been banished.
Along with his “major domo” Merle Bisberg, who, with her husband, Sheldon, is another four-decade alumna of the Zen center, Wittenberg has cobbled together a program of diverse musical events that are performed several times a week, June through October.
This past week, Surry Arts at the Barn presented a ballet performance from Pittsfield’s Bossov Ballet company; a local jazz trio; a soprano soloist; a Flamenco guitarist and a talk and art exhibition from activist/artist Robert Shetterly.
While some of the performers are old friends who return year after year, Alan also “cross-pollinates” with other area music venues — the ballet dancers from a Collins Center performance at the University of Maine, for instance, a soprano and pianist from the Bar Harbor Music Festival, a violinist from Kneisel Hall, or a Celtic band from Schoodic maybe.
While Alan says finding talent from here and away has not been a problem, finding volunteers to help with the daily operations and financial support has been.
“We are always looking for more volunteers, donations and angels to help sustain this,” he says, adding that although he rents several of the farm’s cottages to help support the Music Barn, they are still operating in the red.
“We don’t pay ourselves, but we have to pay the musicians of course,” he explains. “Merle always complains we don’t pay them enough but…” he shrugs his shoulders.
This particular night’s “underpaid” talent is the John Gallagher Trio, with John on bass, his son Phelan on alto sax and David Clark on guitar.
The thing about jazz — good jazz, that is — is the more you listen to it, the more you want to hear. And this Blue Hill-based combo is really, really good, playing old standards such as Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark,” some sexy bossa nova and Chet Baker’s melancholy “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” I could swear Phelan’s mom must be a seal, he came up for air so rarely, and finally Billy Taylor’s Gospel-like “I Wish I Knew What it Felt Like to be Free,” which took us all to church in fine style.
Walter, who tended toward more classical fare, might be surprised at the diversity of talent that finds its way to his enchanting little hay barn these days. And, he’d certainly approve of how Alan and Merle Bisberg have managed to design a summer season with virtually something for everyone.
As a case in point, next month they’ve got jazz and classical piano soloists, a folk and bluegrass combos, a chamber music quartet and a klezmer band on the playbill.
“This is a special place,” Alan says, spreading his arms wide to encompass the barn’s interior, now lit with shafts of golden light from a setting sun, slanting through its west-facing doors and windows.
“And if it keeps me far too busy, I have to believe the beauty, depth and dimension of what we do here matters — makes this sacred ground.”