Rich Copley: Chamber Music Festival of Lexington reset many musical bars

Herald-Leader Culture ColumnistAugust 25, 2013 

Violinists Nathan Cole and Akiko Tarumoto, tenor Nicholas Phan, cellist Priscilla Lee, and violist Burchard Tang performed the world premiere of Raymond Lustig's Boys' Ambition Saturday.

RICH COPLEY — Lexington Herald-Leader Buy Photo

Seven years in, the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington is becoming downright venerable.

When it launched in 2007, it was a squirrely concept: a chamber music festival in a town where chamber music had a modest profile at best. Then, a year later, it commissioned a new work where commissions were basically unheard of.

In 2013, the festival hosted the same core ensemble it stated with, seasoned by artistic and professional growth, and some marquee guests.

But the festival is even more vibrant than when it started by maintaining that same plucky spirit and building on the program, which this year was preceded by a week of pop-up concerts that dropped the quintet Windsync into some of Lexington's hippest venues.

The event of the weekend concerts at the Fasig-Tipton Pavilion, as it has been for six of the festival's seven years, was Saturday night's world premiere of a work commissioned for the festival. This year, it was Raymond Lustig's Boys' Ambition, which featured guest musician tenor Nicholas Phan and the festival's string quartet.

Boys' Ambition sought to set the scene of Mark Twain's childhood on the Mississippi River, and the momentary excitement at the arrival of a riverboat to break the monotony.

Cellist Priscilla Lee and violist Burchard Tang set that mood at the beginning with a yawing, groaning, extended opening that felt like a long afternoon nap in the shade. Phan's tenor and the bright violins of Nathan Cole and Akiko Tarumoto ushered in the youthful perspective, and all involved had Twain's brilliant prose for inspiration.

The ensemble sprang to life as the riverboat arrived, glistening in white with smokestacks and hearty, well-traveled men running the ship — the low strings a continued reminder of where we were. And then, almost as soon as it arrived, the boat departed, and the town went back to sleep in Lee's cello and Tang's viola, faint maritime violins still echoing the excitement.

You might have assumed a singer would have messed up the mix at the festival.

The instrumentalists, after all, have been performing together for six years, developing rapport, character, and sound. They have had other players in, all instrumentalists who became part of the group — not frontmen or women.

Surely, when a singer stepped to center stage, it was going to become his show, unless he become part of the band; another thread in the fabric of this ensemble.

And that is exactly what Phan, a vigorous proponent of vocal chamber music, did through the weekend. He was given free reign to do what he wanted and selected works by Franz Schubert and Ralph Vaugh-Williams, in addition to Lustig's premiere.

Phan likes chamber music as a chance to communicate with the audience, which he certainly did — his stare into space at the end of Friday's performance of Vaughn-Williams' On Wenlock Edge was almost as haunting as his singing.

Saturday night's performance of the first half of Schubert's Schwanengesang, with pianist Alessio Bax, was the festival's best showcase for Phan.

The song-cycle, which touched on love, war, and loss, showcased Phan's engaging manner, and the venue of Fasig-Tipton allowed him and Bax to be effectively intimate and overwhelming. (The second half of Schwanengesang was performed at Sunday afternoon's concert, which I was not able to attend.)

Throughout the weekend, the entire ensemble excelled, and it was particularly good to have violinist Tarumoto back after a couple years' absence.

We rightfully get excited by hometown-guy-made-good Cole, the festival's artistic director and first associate concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But his wife, fellow L.A. Phil violinist Tarumoto, is a fantastic player — you don't get into the L.A. Phil by being so-so — and Saturday night's performance of Maurice Ravel's String Quartet in F was an ideal showcase for her sprite tone and arresting stage presence.

The Chamber Music Festival of Lexington has so effectively reset several musical bars in Lexington, it's kind of hard to see it go as August melts into September. But it has rubbed off on Lexington as we now enjoy a more vibrant environment of new work and chamber music.

Better than venerable, it's become influential.

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

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