SOUTH EGREMONT — A white party tent stretches across a farm field. A couple of hundred people take their seats. The musicians Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax prepare to step upon a homemade stage hammered together the day before.
Will Conklin looks around, admittedly astonished. A long-held dream has become a happy reality.
“It feels like something of a consecration,” he said Wednesday evening, moments before the start of a fundraiser for Greenagers, a group that introduces young people to land stewardship, farming, traditional trades and care for the community. Conklin, the executive director of Greenagers, shook his head in awe. “It’s something else, right?”
How does a little-known nonprofit come to host a concert featuring two world-renowned performers? After all, not too long ago, Greenagers was housed in tight quarters — part office space, part toolshed — in the Granary Building in Great Barrington.
Peter Whitehead, a builder and Greenagers board member, explained.
“This past March, I was doing a small project at the Ma house in Tyringham,” he said. “One morning I was exiting the basement, and I came face-to-face, or mask to mask, with Yo-Yo. He was holding a small hand tool. He asked me if I was hiring. I assured him that the vaccines were coming and that he would be playing music soon.”
Whitehead said he and Ma then proceeded to catch up on family news. Whitehead mentioned to Ma that his son, Yuri, had taken a job at Greenagers, running a program called Pathway to the Trades.
“Working with your hands.” Ma commented. “I work with my hands.”
“Yes,” Whitehead said.
“Nonprofit?” Ma asked.
“Yes,” Whitehead said.
“Fundraiser!” Ma declared.
Ma then said he was “going to go up upstairs right now and call my friend Manny [Ax], and we’re going to do a fundraiser,” Whitehead recalled.
Ma and Ax, men of their word and men of their music, helped raise $140,000 Wednesday evening, David Sheehan, president of Greenagers’ board of directors, announced at the start of the concert to an enthusiastic round of applause. The fundraiser, Sheehan said, “marks a big leap toward Greenagers’ continuing evolution with jobs and programs for our area’s young people.”
In an hourlong concert at Greenagers’ headquarters at the 100-acre April Hill Education and Conservation Center off Undermountain Road, the celloist and pianist — Grammy winners who first met decades ago at the Juilliard School of Music in New York — performed works by Brahms, Massenet, Chopin, Beethoven and others. And the two longtime friends engaged in plenty of banter in between.
Ma joked that Ax has a habit of describing most of the songs he plays as both “so beautiful” and “so difficult.” That became a theme for the evening. Beauty and hard work go hand in hand for great musicians and Greenagers alike.
In a joint statement before the fundraiser, Ma and Ax called Greenagers “the best of Berkshires culture.”
At their concert, they elaborated on the theme.
“What you do here is so important in terms of re-stitching with nature,” Ma said. “I feel that for a couple hundred years we’ve extracted from nature and learned an unbelievable amount. But, we haven’t really come full circle in terms of not just extracting, but in putting back. It’s the only way I can think of that we can survive and thrive.”
“Young people are interested in doing stuff,” Ax said. Greenagers, he said, provides the opportunity to channel that inclination and thereby strengthen community.
Greenagers, founded in 2007 as a program of the Center for Peace Through Culture, now employees 10 year-round workers and an additional several dozen teens and young people during the summer. Through paid employment programs, internships and apprenticeships, young people engage in sustainable farming, and trail building and management, on properties in the Berkshires and New York state.
Farm apprentices work with local farmers, learning animal husbandry and organic agriculture.
The nonprofit also travels the countryside and builds raised-bed organic vegetable gardens for families to encourage growing nutritious food at home. Through the Pathway to the Trades program, they are paired with professional tradespeople. They also manage the center at April Hill, which Greenagers took ownership of in 2019 for a nominal fee. April Hill now showcases regenerative farming practices like silvopasture, agroforestry and permaculture. The farm includes sizable vegetable gardens and grass-based livestock production.
“It’s a great way to learn,” said Cecilie MacPherson, a recent college graduate from Radnor, Pa., who joined Greenagers in January and helps oversee April Hill’s agricultural operations. Getting her hands dirty while developing skills as a worker and a resident, MacPherson said, “My ultimate goal is to pursue farming. The world needs healthy food.”
Locally, Ma and Ax previously had been seen performing together in the fall, giving pop-up performances on a flatbed truck in support of essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic. They have sprung to the need of Greenagers with a similar sense of purpose.
“One of the things Manny and I heard recently from a wise person is that the secret to happiness is, it’s not something you can buy,” Ma told the crowd Wednesday evening. “It’s a byproduct of love and work.”
He said, “That’s one of the things that attracted us to Greenagers and precisely the reason we do music: It’s about making sure things last. You want to make sure that a place like the Berkshires is going to be a great place 100 years from now.”
“My fantasy is to apprentice with Peter,” Ax said, jokingly, referring to Whitehead, the builder.
“I tried, and I was rejected,” Ma said.
With Whitehead in the audience, Ax elaborated on his credentials.
“Three years ago, I actually changed up a showerhead,” he said.
This story has been modified to correct the first name of Cecilie MacPherson.