I can’t remember the first concert I ever attended at the celebrated Filene Center, presented by Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. But I remember my first concert at The Barns at Wolf Trap in clear detail. The group was Eddie From Ohio. From the outrageous acoustics to the warm, intimate setting to the talents of a group I had never heard of before, it was among the most memorable musical experiences of my life. I’d be willing to bet The Barns delivers experiences like that with every concert they host. The place is magic that way.
Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, itself, is a pretty special place, too. It is our nation’s only National Park for the Performing Arts. Let that sink in for a second. It is a National Park, like Yosemite, not somewhere you think you would find a music venue, but it is dedicated entirely to music, dance, and theater. It sits upon 117 acres of land donated by Catherine Filene Shouse. Best known for the Filene Center, which seats 7,000, Wolf Trap National Park is also home to Children's Theatre-in-the-Woods and The Barns at Wolf Trap, one of the best-kept-secrets in the DC-area music scene. (Wolf Trap National Park works in partnership with the nonprofit Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts to bring music to the stages at the Park.)
Secret #1 is a barn raiser
The Barns is called The Barns because it is made up of two 18th century barns. Mrs. Shouse had attended a concert in a barn in Maine and was taken by the charm and acoustics. She commissioned a barn historian to identify two barns for relocation to Virginia. He found them both in upstate NY and they were relocated and reassembled at Wolf Trap in 1981:
- The circa 1730 German barn comprises the main theater, seating 284 on the threshing floor and another 98 in the hayloft
- The circa 1791 Scottish Barn is used as a reception area for concertgoers, serving craft cocktails and artisanal foods
Rebuilt for awesome acoustics
Both of The Barns were rebuilt on the site using the traditional “block and tackle” method of construction—poles, pulleys, ropes, and sheer manpower. An interesting note is that the boards of the walls were reversed to showcase the exterior weathering on the inside of the venue. Then the acoustics were refined to create an acoustically perfect environment for music. Between the sound quality and the warmth of the wooden beams, you are drawn into the performances in ways that can’t be achieved in other venues.
A special place for special performances
Patti LuPone. Art Garfunkel. Brandi Carlisle. Sheila E. When big stars want to connect with their audience, they come to The Barns. All could easily fill venues exponentially larger than The Barns’ 382 seats (heck, Garfunkel played live to over 500,000 in Central Park.) But they choose The Barns for the intimate experience. They also trust The Barns to kick off their special tours and events…an intimate evening with Ann Wilson as she plays her father’s favorite songs or a solo album tour with David Crosby.
But it’s not all about big stars. If you were here in 1989, you could have “discovered” Harry Connick Jr., for example. Lyle Lovett, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Vince Gill, Stanley Jordan, and The Avett Brothers all played The Barns early in their careers. Each year brings approximately 80 new performances ranging from indie, country, and rock to Indian tabla music, “highbrow chamber” and comedy. Your next new discovery is probably among them. (Check out some of the 2019-2020 lineup here.)
Because the Filene Center is so beloved in greater Washington, most people’s knowledge of Wolf Trap is attached to that outdoor venue. So many may think that Wolf Trap is a seasonal concert venue, open only in the warmer months. But that’s not true about The Barns. Because they are enclosed, temperature-controlled spaces, they host performances and events year-round. From October-May, The Barns hosts over 80 performances—from jazz to folk. Then, in the summer months, The Barns is home to the Wolf Trap Opera.
Make The Barns your playground
Even though The Barns has held over 3,000 performances in its lifetime, it’s not all about concerts. Both barns are perfect for weddings, receptions, conferences and more.
I can’t claim to be a music aficionado, but I have been to most of the better-known music venues in the region. Nothing comes close to my experience at The Barns. And it’s a shame because I’d wager most residents—and most Filene Center visitors— have never been there. There is something about the coziness of the barn walls and the way the sound bounces off the almost 300-year-old rafters that envelops you and takes you out of all space and time and into a concert all your own. Check out their schedule here and get in on the secret!
Have you seen a show at The Barns at Wolf Trap? Which performances top your list? Tell us in the comments below or share your stories on social media using #FXVA or @VisitFairfax. For more music and arts ideas in Fairfax County, start here.
*Images provided by Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.*