Rich Copley: Bigger audiences show organizers that chamber festival is a real crowd-pleaser

Herald-Leader Culture Columnist,Rich CopleySeptember 2, 2012 

Beginning his curtain speech on the final afternoon of the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington, festival president Charles H. Stone said, "This is an extraordinarily strong crowd for a Sunday afternoon when there are other things happening in the commonwealth."

He was referring to the University of Kentucky-University of Louisville football game, which started off the second half of the performance. But chamber music fans can be as loyal as Cats and Cards fans, and they filled the Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion for the final afternoon of the sixth annual festival, directed by Lexington native and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra associate concertmaster Nathan Cole.

Before Sunday's concert, Stone said that he was "over the moon" with the performances and response to this year's festival and that he thought Saturday night's concert crowd was the biggest ever for a chamber festival performance, which he says attracts 350 to 400 people on its best nights. The festival does not count heads as, in addition to ticket sales, festival patrons are issued free tickets they may use at their discretion.

After six years, Stone says he thinks the festival has reached a pinnacle that many arts groups dream of: having an audience that trusts it enough to attend regardless of what is being played. That has been shown, he said, in the popularity of its concerts that include world premieres commissioned by the festival and a steady diet of modern works in addition to centuries-old, crowd- pleasing classics.

"The mix is great," Stone says. "It would be pretty tiresome if we only played the classics."

Referring to Friday night's performance of Alfred Schnittke's Moz-Art for Two Violins, which had Cole playing from outside the hall over a microphone while guest violinist Jasmine Lin played onstage, creating surreal effects, Stone says, "That was extraordinary. What we need to do now is get the word out around the country about this."

It helps to have artists with growing national profiles.

After his first full year with the Los Angeles orchestra, following a long tenure with the Chicago Symphony, Cole tapped one of his orchestra colleagues, principal horn player Andrew Bain, to be the guest artist for this year's festival.

Cole programmed several iconic horn pieces for Bain. In addition, the festival opened with a piece by one of Bain's friends and a fellow horn player, Philip Jeremy Hall.

Lin might have exemplified how welcoming the festival has become to guest musicians. At numerous times through the weekend, Cole ceded the first violin spot or the violin chair altogether to the Chicago-based chamber musician — even bowing out of Saturday night's world premiere of Chris Rogerson's Summer Night Music.

Earlier in the week, Cole said that was part of the natural growth of the festival.

When it began, Cole was sort of the star, being the hometown kid who had made good with the Chicago Symphony. But now, as the festival has grown and Cole has moved to one of the top spots at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he said that he did not feel a need to be in the spotlight as much as he was and that he likes to sit back and listen to what he has brought together.

This year featured some tweaks to the festival's early week format, capping off the Wednesday evening of master classes with a performance of the Spring movement of Antonio Vivaldi's Four Seasons by festival musicians and members of Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras, for which Cole played while growing up in Lexington.

The Thursday night open rehearsal became a preview concert at Portofino restaurant. It was the first instance where many heard how sweet Cole's career had become.

According to Cole, the Los Angeles orchestra has three Stradivari, and he has second choice after concertmaster Martin Chalifour of which one to play. The instrument he selected was played by and willed to the orchestra by comedian Jack Benny, who had a running gag about playing violin badly, although he actually was an accomplished musician.

And Cole can count a successful hometown festival that doesn't have to worry about competition from the Cats as one of his numerous accomplishments.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Email: @copiousnotes.

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