Music News & Reviews

Rich Copley: Chamber music festival at Shakertown has thrived amid change

Maynard Crossland, who took over last summer as director of Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, has helped to  continue the Chamber Music Festival of the Bluegrass. Two of the concerts will be in the Meeting House.
Maynard Crossland, who took over last summer as director of Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, has helped to continue the Chamber Music Festival of the Bluegrass. Two of the concerts will be in the Meeting House. Lexington Herald-Leader

SHAKERTOWN — To the audience, some of the faces change each year, but the Chamber Music Festival of the Bluegrass at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill has remained a fairly consistent event since its debut in May 2007.

In its second year, it moved to Memorial Day weekend and added a late-morning pair of concerts in the village's acoustically sterling Meeting House. Behind the scenes, though, there has been a lot of change.

The festival was the brainchild of George Foreman, then-director of Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts. He departed for the University of Georgia at the end of 2009, and last year, the Norton Center bowed out of the event, saying it wanted to focus on programs for the campus and students. But leaders at Shakertown thought they had a good thing and took over sole presentation of the festival last year, under the leadership of longtime Shakertown director Madge B. Adams. She retired last summer, succeeded by Maynard Crossland, who came from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

It's a lot of change for a young festival, but through it all, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center directors Wu Han and David Finckel have remained as the festival's artistic directors, and despite all the change, Han says they never considered letting the event go.

"It's very simple," Wu said from her home in New York. "It's the community; it's the setting. Management will come and go, from our experience, but art, if you have a community to support it, if you have the audience and, in the case of the Shaker Village, that particular setting, it's irreplaceable.

"It's so magical, particularly in the modern world we live in today, to have a place for the renewal of spirit. I just could not find a better setting."

Wu, a pianist, and Finckel, a cellist, usually perform at the festival but couldn't attend last year. They will be back for this year's event.

Crossland envisions the festival as part of an overall strategy to get a larger, younger audience into the village and experience it as relevant to modern life as much as a historic destination.

"We really need to look at our customer base and ask what it is that they're wanting," he says. "What they're wanting is a whole lot different than what their parents were wanting. So we need to be able to meet that need. It's a lot more activity.

"Telling the story of what happened here has to be more than standing in front of an interpreter and having them tell you a story. It has to be immersive in all the senses, and people have to be able to take away things they can use in their own lives."

Crossland wants to realign the conception of Shakers from that of "a weird religious sect" to that of a culture that developed and perfected practices such as business and sustainability that are seen as virtues today.

Music, of course, also was part of that culture.

The festival is immersed in Shakertown, using the historical structures the Meeting House and the Meadow View Barn as venues for the concerts.

"When I first came, I was very excited about it because people would never think of chamber music as something that we would do here," Crossland says. "When you look at it from the sense the harmony and spirituality this site has, what better way to communicate spirituality and harmony and peacefulness than through chamber music?

"We also have a responsibility to bring to the community to bring some things we may not otherwise have."

Crossland and Wu agree they want to see the festival grow. In the past, Wu and Finckel have talked about the festival as having the potential to gain a national profile, thanks to its location and the quality of the music. Crossland says he sees the arts overall as playing a role in making Shakertown more of a destination.

"I would like to find ways to open this experience to more people who had never been exposed to chamber music and never thought they'd be interested in it in any way," Crossland says.

Wu says growth might come in expanding the schedule to possibly a week or a couple of times a year, "though that could be tricky," she says.

"Last year was the first year the Shaker Village took it over alone," she said. "So we will listen to the audience, and if the audience is there, we'd be happy to come back. There's certainly never a lack of music to program."