They had planned on this. From its inception, organizers of the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington wanted to engage a composer-in-residence, possibly even commission a new work.
But first, they wanted to have a debut festival and see how it went, maybe give it a few years before that next leap.
It was a little more than a year ago that the festival successfully debuted in the Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion, setting high hopes for a second edition.
But any wait for that first composer-in-residence vanished when festival creator Charlie Stone took a trip to Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
”We were at the Amtrak station in Albany, N.Y., having both arrived from New York City,“ Stone wrote in an e-mail, recalling his first encounter with Daniel Thomas Davis. ”Dan was looking to get to Saratoga by taxi, and when I heard him say he was going to Yaddo, the artist colony, I asked him, Why Yaddo? ‘I am a composer,’ he said. I had my brochure in hand announcing our inaugural festival, so I agreed to take him (to Saratoga Springs).“
They got to talking on their ride; Stone gave Davis that brochure, Davis gave Stone some CDs. They had a few more conversations, and Stone eventually called the festival’s artistic director, Nathan Cole.
”Charlie called and said he had met this guy, and he was thinking of engaging him for the festival,“ said Cole, a Lexington native and Chicago Symphony violinist.
Cole and Davis talked, Davis heard some recordings from the first season of the festival, and a few months later, he was in Lexington, soaking up local color.
This week, Davis is back as the composer-in-residence for the world premiere of his Book of Songs and Visions, the piece he wrote while drawing inspiration from his visits to Central Kentucky earlier this year.
”It’s always inspiring to be in a great setting,“ Davis says of his visits. ”There are these resonant anchors that appear periodically throughout the piece — high violin and viola echoes.
”But the biggest thing was the interaction of the people, which was the organizing metaphor for the piece. It’s chamber music, so it’s communication, it’s interaction.“
That’s Kentucky, too, as Davis sees it.
Yes, he was impressed with the rolling countryside, the sound of a whistle in the meeting house at Shaker Village and the architecture in downtown Lexington. But what really impressed Davis was the people.
”It’s a small-big place, or a big-small place — I never know what’s better to say there,“ says Davis, a native of Waxhaw, N.C., who teaches composition at the University of Michigan. ”People were always interested in what I was doing, and as an outsider, I was really taken by the sense of community. Everywhere I went, someone knew someone else.“
Cole said the piece ”does strike me as a visitor’s impression of Kentucky, and many great pieces have been written that way — by the composer visiting and interpreting his impressions.“
Cole sees that communication manifest in aspects of the piece, such as unison playing among the instruments.
When they talked, Cole says, he gave Davis little direction, except that they wanted a piano quintet — piano, two violins, viola and cello — that ran about 15 minutes.
Davis says he used the piano quintet format to progress the piece from people getting to know one another in the beginning to unity in the final two movements.
He describes the first movement as the piano and the strings playing separately: ”Why do you have this piano in my string quartet? Why do you have this string quartet in my piano piece?“
In the second movement, the two violins and piano play together, and then the viola and cello play with the piano. A little inspiration for that came from the fact that violinists Cole and Akiko Tarumoto are a couple and violist Burchard Tang and cellist Priscilla Lee are a couple.
Tang and Lee celebrated their first anniversary on the last day of last year’s festival, a family concert that had a romantic flair. This year’s casual Sunday concert will have an Olympic theme, with Davis serving as a ”sportscaster,“ as Cole describes it, talking to the audience about what the musicians are doing as they play through the pieces.
A risk worth taking
Programming the rest of the festival, Cole says he initially asked Davis what might complement his composition. At the time, Davis said, he didn’t know how his piece would turn out.
Cole said he leaned toward programming newer material for the festival, hence selections such as John Adams’ Road Movies for Violin and Piano on Friday night and Claude Debussy and Dmitri Shostakovich on Saturday night, when they play the premiere.
That, of course, is the big fulfillment of a wish, a veritable early Christmas for the barely year-old festival.
”For a new, young festival to take a risk like this is quite unique,“ Davis says.
”I’m thrilled,“ Cole says of the commission, supported financially by Ron Saykaly and his wife, Teresa Garbulinska. ”From the start, we wanted to be creating new music.“