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Hilltown Spectacular brings diverse muscians to food pantry benefit

  • Heidi Nortonsmith, on the banjo, and James Kitchen have organized a musical benefit this Sunday for the Hilltown Food Pantry and the Northampton Survival Center. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Heidi Nortonsmith, on the banjo, and James Kitchen have organized a musical benefit this Sunday for the Hilltown Food Pantry and the Northampton Survival Center. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Heidi Nortonsmith, on the banjo, and James Kitchen have organized a musical benefit this Sunday for the Hilltown Food Pantry and the Northampton Survival Center. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Heidi Nortonsmith, on the banjo, and James Kitchen have organized a musical benefit this Sunday for the Hilltown Food Pantry and the Northampton Survival Center. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Heidi Nortonsmith, on the banjo, and James Kitchen have organized a musical benefit this Sunday for the Hilltown Food Pantry and the Northampton Survival Center. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Heidi Nortonsmith, on the banjo, and James Kitchen have organized a musical benefit this Sunday for the Hilltown Food Pantry and the Northampton Survival Center. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sculptor and musician James Kitchen joins forces with opera singer Claudia Waite for some impromptu singing at Snow Farm in Williamsburg in 2016. Image courtesy of James Kitchen

  • Sunday’s benefit, which is hosted by the Chesterfield Council on Aging, features performance by more than 20 musicians, including two opera singers. Image courtesy of James Kitchen

  • Cellist Stephen Katz of Haydenville will play at the Hilltown Spectacular.

  • Josh and Kim Wachtel, who perform as Radio Free Earth, are among the musicians playing at the Hilltown Spectacular benefit in Chesterfield this Sunday.



Staff Writer
Thursday, January 11, 2018

Read enough music reviews and criticism, and you can quickly be overwhelmed by the number of subgenres, particularly in pop music. Alt-folk. Art Punk. Doom Metal. Chamber pop. Neo-soul. Surf-spy-twang-rock.

You can hear a new one live this weekend: blupra.

That’s what the organizers of the Third Annual Hilltown Spectacular are offering on Sunday, in a benefit for the Hilltown Food Pantry and the Northampton Survival Center. The Chesterfield Council on Aging will host an “international banquet,” while more than 20 musicians will be offering a range of sounds including country, bluegrass and opera.

Yes, you heard right: opera. And when you combine bluegrass and opera, says James Kitchen, you get “blupra.”

“It’s a style all its own,” he said.

Kitchen, a Chesterfield sculptor who creates enormous pieces crafted from old farm machinery, tools and metal scraps, is also a musician and songwriter. And for the past two years, he has worked with Heidi Nortonsmith, director of the Northampton Survival Center, to turn the Chesterfield COA’s winter banquet into a musical fundraiser for people struggling to get enough food.

This year, Kitchen has invited around 20 players to the event, including two opera singers: Claudia Waite, a soprano with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and Angela Scorese, a young soprano from New Jersey who has family connections in the area. There are also guitarists, fiddlers, bassists and others, including acclaimed cellist Stephen Katz of Haydenville.

How some of these disparate musicians will come together is still something of secret. But Kitchen, an enthusiastic, high-energy guy who’s been known to spin a few tall tales now and then, is promising to do a duet with Waite, whom he met in 2016, on a song he wrote for the occasion, and he also says Sunday’s event will mark Nortonsmith’s public debut on the banjo, an instrument she took up about a year ago.

“With a banjo player on stage, we’re definitely going to have a bunch of banjo jokes, too,” he said with a laugh during a recent joint interview with Nortonsmith.

“I guess I’m putting my reputation on the line,” Nortonsmith added.

On a more serious note, Nortonsmith said Sunday’s benefit — the buffet starts at 12:30 p.m., the music at 2:00 — is a great means to remind people that hunger remains a serious issue in the Valley and many other parts of the country, and that the Northampton Survival Center (and its satellite Hilltown Food Pantry) put food directly into people’s hands.

“It’s all these talented musicians but none of the ego, just a really good old-timey, fun event for a good cause,” she said. “The Chesterfield Council on Aging puts on a great spread. And it’s great to work with someone like James who says ‘Well, what can I do to help? What can I do to raise some money and awareness for this problem?’ ”

“It’s the difference between kids having breakfast before going to school, having a real meal rather than something like buttered noodles,” added Kitchen, who noted that last year’s Hilltown Spectacular raised enough money to buy over 8,000 pounds of food. “It’s just a basic need that’s so important.”

Meeting an opera star, making a friend

Kitchen said he and his folky band, James Kitchen and the Appliances, had been playing for years at an annual food pantry benefit dinner in Cummington organized by longtime resident Hattie Fuller. When Fuller became too ill to run the event — she died in December 2016 at age 88 — Kitchen said he felt compelled to take up her mantle in some way.

“She really inspired me, and this was such a good cause, so it made me say to the [Chesterfield] Council on Aging, ‘Why don’t we make our annual dinner a big benefit and bring in some musicians, get some businesses and others to support us?’ ”

Kitchen then approached Nortonsmith about the idea; she was immediately on board. At the first Hilltown Spectacular, Kitchen and his band were the only performers; last year, he expanded the show (though some players unfortunately got sick and couldn’t make it), and he penned a new song for the occasion, “The Chesterfield Crawl.”

This year, Kitchen has cast his musical net even wider. Perhaps his most surprising recruit is Claudia Waite, the Metropolitan Opera soprano, who lives just north of Boston and has performed across the world in a range of productions such as “Die Fledermaus” and “Don Giovanni.” She’s also a classical singer who was a featured soloist in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony when the piece was performed at the opening ceremonies of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

How they met: In the spring of 2016, Waite was a visitor at Snow Farm, the craft school in Williamsburg, where her husband, Craig Garnett, was taking a metal sculpting class taught by Kitchen. As Kitchen explains it, he was having some breakfast at the farm one day before teaching, having sat down near two women he didn’t know.

Kitchen being Kitchen, he said that after talking with them for a bit, “for some reason” he started singing a few lines from “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” from “Oklahoma”  when suddenly “one of the women starts singing with me, and she’s hitting these incredible high notes.” 

“Later, I Googled Claudia Waite, and I’m like, ‘My gosh, she’s been all over the world!’ ” he said. “So this year I emailed her and asked if she’d sing for us if she was free, and she said yes. And let me tell you — she’s a real stitch.”

In a phone call from her home in Stoneham, Waite said she has been coming to Snow Farm for some time to take classes in a variety of crafts — “It’s like my sleepaway camp,” she said — and she and her husband have also been regular visitors to Amherst over the years (he’s a 1987 Amherst College graduate who used to run the school’s computer lab).

She knew who Kitchen was, though they hadn’t met before, and she enjoyed talking to him and then surprising him with her singing. “James sort of said, ‘Wait a minute, it sounds like you’ve had some training,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m a bit of a ringer.’ ”

“We’ve been buddies from that moment on,” Waite added. “So when he emailed me [about the benefit], I was happy to help out. It’s a great cause.” 

Meanwhile, Angela Scorese, a recent graduate of Barnard College in New York, is active in opera, choral singing and musical theater in New Jersey. In an email, she said she was excited to help out a good cause, make a few connections “with fellow opera lovers and performers,” and see her relatives — and the opportunity to sing with Claudia Waite, she added, “isn’t one I could just pass up!”

Kitchen said there will also be some ensemble singing at Sunday’s event, and there’s some talk as well of Waite attempting to set the record for the highest note ever sung, which is currently A above high C. According to press notes, Waite will try to sing a note “so high that only a dog can hear it.” 

Nortonsmith says there’s no fee to come to the Hilltown Spectacular to witness all this excitement and variety, and no need to RSVP. Donations are welcome, as are potluck dishes, but it’s “whatever people can give.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

The Third Annual Hilltown Food Pantry Benefit begins at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday at the Chesterfield Grange, 400 Main Street (Route 143) in Chesterfield. Additional information can be found by calling the Northampton Survival Center at 586-6564 or Janice Gibeau at the Chesterfield Council on Aging at 296-4007.