There are big and small reasons why Raymond Lustig was an unlikely composer-in-residence for this year's Chamber Music Festival of Lexington.
Small reason: It wasn't originally his gig. Composer Adam Schoenberg was supposed to have the job, but Schoenberg had to bow out when he and his wife learned that she was pregnant in January. Schoenberg suggested at the time that festival organizers check out Lustig's work.
Big reason: Lustig had been a molecular biologist before turning to composing.
When you add the basis of Lustig's new work, to have its world premiere at Saturday's concert at the Fasig-Tipton Pavilion, Lustig becomes something of an educator's dream.
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The new piece is a setting of The Boys' Ambition, a chapter from Mark Twain's memoir Life on the Mississippi.
Beginning the composition process, Lustig had two things in mind: Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a setting of James Agee's description of a Southern summer evening, and the music of Benjamin Britten, a specialty of tenor Nicholas Phan, the festival's guest artist (see accompanying story).
"I liked the idea of something that took you someplace and kept you there for a while, and not a series of songs," Lustig says. "We decided summertime at an American chamber music festival, it would be good to find something that had to do with America."
The search led him to The Boys' Ambition and the story of how the arrival of a riverboat in a sleepy Mississippi River town becomes a huge event in the lives of some young men.
"I thought the story was totally charming and beautiful and sweet and powerful in that Mark Twain sort of way," Lustig says. "The thing that got me was Twain's ability to be in the boys' perspective as he's marveling at the deckhands as gods, and the captain is even more than that.
It evoked, he said, "that youthful sense of imagination and endless possibilities that speaks to the American spirit still," he said.
Lustig hasn't just been fascinated by music.
"I was really interested in molecular biology, and that intersection of where a molecule — a molecule is made of atoms, and atoms are like these mini solar systems, and atoms come together to make a molecule — and these molecules have these certain shapes that make them do something and act and do something in the world," Lustig says.
He was particularly interested in how molecules form muscle to create action and force in the world.
Lustig's first career was as a researcher at Columbia Presbyterian and Massachusetts General hospitals.
"I loved it; I really loved it," says Lustig, who was on a pre-med track in college. "I did so reluctantly, but I became passionate about it."
He also kept composing, and it was clear to Lustig and people around him that music was what he needed to pursue.
He saw a kinship between the arts and science worlds: passionate people putting in long, low-paid hours, hoping for a big break to vault them to another level.
"I saw my scientist friends who were working so incredibly hard and were so talented and so passionate about what they did, and worked so many hours for so little pay. ... And I said, I admire that passion and drive to become incredibly good, and this just is not the realm I want to do it in," Lustig says. "So that's when I decided to turn back to music full-time."
So music is what Lustig is working on in Lexington: Summer of 2013.
IF YOU GO
Chamber Music Festival of Lexington
What: Seventh annual festival of chamber music concerts with returning artists Nathan Cole and Akiko Tarumoto, violins; Burchard Tang, viola; Priscilla Lee, cello; and Alessio Bax, piano. Guest artists are Nicholas Phan, tenor, and Raymond Lustig, composer-in-residence.
Tickets: Various prices; listed below. Available at the Downtown Arts Center box office, 141 E. Main St.; (859) 225-0370; or Lexarts.tix.com.
Learn more: Chambermusiclex.com
Aug. 22: Preview performance and open rehearsal with returning and guest artists. 7:30 p.m. Natasha's Bistro, 112 Esplanade. Free.
Aug. 23: Music by Vaughan Williams and Beethoven. 7:30 p.m. Fasig-Tipton Pavilion, 2400 Newtown Pike. $15, $35.
Aug. 24: Music by Schubert, Ravel and world premiere by Lustig. 7:30 p.m. Fasig-Tipton Pavilion. $15, $35.
Aug. 25: Music by Mozart, Schumann, Prokofiev, Schubert and Shostakovich. 2 p.m. Fasig-Tipton Pavilion. $15.