After a successful debut in 2007 with works by masters such as Mozart and Beethoven, the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington will have a composition of its own this year.
Musician Daniel Thomas Davis will be the composer-in-residence at the festival, Aug. 27 to 31, and his new piano quintet will premiere Aug. 30.
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”The idea was for me to come down here and somehow be prompted by the people and the place,“ Davis said over coffee at Third Street Stuff.
To that end, he came to Lexington in February and spent a week with festival creator Charlie Stone, who ferried him around the region to soak up local color and sound.
”We had gone to Shakertown,“ Davis recalled, ”and the Shakers have a long musical history.
”It was a frighteningly cold morning, and no one was there. And I remember this incident: I was standing in the meetinghouse all by myself, and I whistled. I got this amazing echo — not a big stadium echo, but far more colorful. It came back with a very different color from where it started.“
Davis initially met Stone in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where the composer was an artist-in-residence at the legendary Yaddo Colony artists' retreat.
It was the latest in a career of numerous honors for the composer, who has bachelor's degrees from the Peabody Conservatory of Music and Johns Hopkins University and a master's from the Royal Academy of Music in London. He has studied composition with well-known writers such as William Bolcom, Peter Maxwell Davies and Jennifer Higdon. His most successful composition to date is To Canaan's fair and happy land, which has been performed more than 75 times and has been excerpted on radio in the United States and Europe.
In Saratoga Springs, mutual acquaintances introduced Stone and Davis, and they started discussing the festival's desire to have a composer-in-residence. Stone put Davis in touch with the festival's artistic director, Lexington native and Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinist Nathan Cole.
Davis says it was important for him to at least hear recordings of the quintet to write for them.
The musicians this year will be the same as at last year's festival: husband-and-wife violinists Cole and Akiko Tarumoto, violist Burchard Tang, cellist Priscilla Lee and pianist Alessio Bax.
”Chamber music is a wonderful metaphor for human interaction,“ Davis said. ”It's a stimulating environment where someone can be an individual and part of a larger work.“
Davis, a native of Waxhaw, N.C., lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he holds the Regent Fellowship in Composition at the University of Michigan. He blew through Lexington last month on his way to drop off his car at his parents' home before flying to Italy, where he had a grant to compose at the Bellagio Center on Lake Como.
”This is the piece I'll be working on over there,“ he said.
He describes a process in which he initially sketches ideas on large, white sheets of paper that don't even have musical staves on them. Then he whittles it down to a more formal structure, often putting the music on the shelf for weeks or months.
”You have a glass of wine one night, write something and say, "That's brilliant, Dan,'“ Davis says. ”Then the next morning you look at it and realize exactly where it needs to go.“
He means the trash can that sits between his desk and his piano.
”The wonderful thing about composing in America is the freedom,“ Davis says. ”You can incorporate any music that beckons, be it country, gospel, blues or whatever.“
Working on his Lexington composition, he senses the audience is open to whatever he might bring.
He says, ”There's been a real creative generosity and openness to something new.“