Last year, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center participated in a pioneering effort: The first Chamber Music Festival of the Bluegrass.
Presented by the Norton Center for the Arts and its director, George Foreman, the fest was held at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, off the beaten path for most concert goers, in a renovated tobacco barn, an atypical venue for musicians more accustomed to cozy concert halls.
And it was a smashing success.
The concerts were sold out, and the chamber music society’s press representative says the musicians haven’t stopped talking about Kentucky.
So, with the second edition upon us, we got on the phone with cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, co-directors of the Chamber Music Society, to talk about the second edition of the festival and their return to the Bluegrass.
Herald-Leader: Tell us about your trip here last year and what made it so great.
David Fickel: The most wonderful thing, besides being in Kentucky, and in such a beautiful place and having such beautiful weather and meeting all the new people and playing for a new audience was being present at the birth of a really exciting new project. These days, when classical music takes root in a new location and blossoms, it’s wonderful news for everybody involved. We also look at our involvement at the Shaker Village there as being something that the Chamber Society is good at, something that we should do, being the kind of organization we are, we should go around and help people start new things because we can present great art in great programs and get people excited.
In the end, we all had a marvelous time. We made a lot of new friends, and we’ve really been thinking about it ever since.
Wu Han: In a regular concert, we usually hit a city and play for an audience of 500 to 2,000 and then we probably split the next morning and hit the next town. That’s a performer’s life.
So, to have the opportunity to base in such a gorgeous environment – it’s inspiring to be in such a pure and spiritual place like the Shaker Village – and to have the opportunity to be involved in a festival is incredibly satisfying. Festival is a place you come to meet people to have exploration, to have a community that has the opportunity to mingle, to eat meals together, to talk and to share a space and exchange ideas. At the end of the festival, we know the presenters very, very well, we get to know the audience, we get to know where to eat locally, we get to hike a little bit and the audience bonded with us. We have so much to share and it’s a very different sensation from just traveling from city to city and doing one night stands. The setting of the Shaker Village is fantastic. I don’t have the TV to distract me with CNN and 30 minutes of updating in my hotel room. And everyday I would wake up in the same place and it is very close to nature and I get to meet my audience in the daytime.
That’s unusual for musicians and I think it’s unusal for the audience to be that close to the musicians.
And playing the tobacco barn is so unusual. It’s very close to the earthiness of what we do using the chamber music form and its intimacy. It’s a project I really treasure.
Q: Last year, before you came, you said you were curious as to what the venue was going to look like. How did the tobacco barn turn out as a place to play?
WH: I loved it. To have a little bit of cowbell and the birds flying around the Dvorak Piano Quintet is not a bad thing at all.
To not have to deal with parking lots, you just drive up close to the barn, there was a pilgrimage feeling to it. It was wonderful. It is so close to nature, it’s spectacular in that setting. The light is wonderful in the afternoon, and when you started playing, you could sense the sunset.
Q: You were talking about finding places to eat and hiking. What are you looking forward to when you come back?
DF: What is really exciting is that the festival, now in its second year, has evolved artistically. We now have an extra concert each day. That provides another opportunity to hear music in an even less formal environment. Those will be shorter concerts, without an intermission.
thing that’s evolved is the artist roster. For the first time at the
village we have a real string quartet. The Orion String Quartet is
coming. They will play string quartets by Beethoven and Mendelssohn and
they will also break apart and perform as individuals and collaborate
with others of us.
So we are able to reveal to the new audience down there the many wonders of chamber music and the string quartet is certainly one of the great phenomenon of the chamber music world.
The other thing that is exciting is that we have broadened the repertoire. Last year, we only played German composers and one Czech: Dvorak. This year, we have – once again, completely new for the Shaker Village – an all Russian program. To finish a festival with Tchaikovsky’s great Souvenir of Florence is one of the most exciting things that has ever happened there, and to precede it with one of the great masterpieces of the 20th Century, the trio by Shostakovich, will really break new ground for the festival.
We will also have some new artists, as well as some familiar faces from last year. Last year we had one of our younger artists with us: DaXun Zhang, the bass player. This year, we’ll have some of our young artists, who are an important part of our season in New York, and they are very excited to come to Kentucky for the first time.
I just hope with the more adventurous concert schedule they’ll have time for a little river trip and bourbon and potato chips in the afternoon, but I’m not counting on it. We’re going to be really busy. But we are coming there to play music, primarily, and that’s what we’re excited about. I know all of these musicians – especially the ones who have not been – will be overcome with the beauty of the place and the enthusiasm of the audience.
Q: Tell us about selecting the repertoire. Did the setting influence that?
DF: We’re not treating this audience for this festival different than a New York audience. The listeners there were very engaged and hungry for more.
After last year’s festival, we talked with George Foreman and he was eager to move the festival forward in creative ways. So we settled on the idea of a Russian program.
This is as much George Foreman’s vision of moving the festival forward as it is ours. He’s a wonderful collaborator work with. He’s a very complete musician himself, he knows music, he knows audiences, and we couldn’t ask for a more wonderful partner in this project.
WH: The daytime concerts at 11 o’clock were very much inspired by our walks in the village. In the Shaker Village there are these old meeting houses and they are acoustically beautiful and I remember sitting around to hear the old songs, the hymns from the Shaker times. Immediately, we said, ‘this is a great place for music.’ So these concerts came from our own desire to make music in that beautiful space. That old wood interior and the simplicity of the decorations and the high ceilings made us want to play something for our audience. So, these daytime concerts came from that inspiration. I would imagine the audience will have a great time if they stay in the village: get up, have breakfast, listen to some good music, take a nap, have some lunch and have another meal of music making and then go have dinner. I could not imagine a more civilized weekend.
DF: In talking about the barn, I remember reading where
George Foreman said, ‘It sure isn’t Lincoln Center,’ and I couldn’t
agree more. This place offer listeners an opportunity to leave the
pressures of their normal lives and do something above and beyond the
normal human experience.
To venture onto that incredible property and surround yourself with the integrity of the structures and the idealism that the Shakers embodied and to then come and have a quintessential music experience in the midst of all that is really rare.
Yes, you can go to concerts in New York in Lincoln Center, but finding that inner and outer calm in which to do it is pretty hard to come by in New York. That’s one of the reasons we are very excited about this project and we encourage people to actually come and stay at the Shaker Village during the festival, because that is an ultimate experience. It’s like people who go to Bayreuth to hear the Ring Cycle, and they do, because it’s a complete journey and a total immersion in a special culture.
Q: You were talking about how in a year this festival has evolved so much. Where do you see it growing?
DF: It’s always a temptation for arts organizations to expand, to do more things and add things and make it bigger. But bigger is not always necessarily better. Some of the greatest paintings in the world are very small. But it’s what’s in the frame that counts and the quality that it is.
If the festival grows, we’ll sense a need for that. But before we have any predictions about where it will grow in the third year, let’s experience the second.
The one question I had is what is that tobacco barn doing on the Shaker property? Did the Shakers smoke cigarettes or did they grow tobacco to sell it? That’s a mystery I’m going to work on while I’m there.