It would make sense to tally up the years of the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington in terms of concerts and works played, commissioned works, guest artists and other typical musical measures.
But for the core quintet of the festival, it can also be tallied in babies born, moves, homes, promotions and other life milestones common to most people.
“We were all married, but we were all newly married,” Nathan Cole says, reflecting on the summer of 2007, when the first festival was presented.
Now Cole and his wife and fellow violinist Akiko Tarumoto have three children, cellist Priscilla Lee and violist Burchard Tang have two kids and pianist Alessio Bax has a daughter with his wife, fellow pianist Lucille Chung.
And as their families have grown, so have their careers. Cole and Tarumoto moved from the Chicago Symphony to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where Cole is first associate concertmaster and Tarumoto is in the first violin section. Tang and Lee are both in the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Bax is enjoying a burgeoning career as a piano soloist. His recordings are frequently heard on programs on WEKU-FM 88.9 and WEKH-FM 102.1.
Despite all the changes and career success, the quintet keeps coming back to Lexington every August.
“Everybody’s gotten busier, and everybody’s family has grown, so I have to thank them for making the time and the committment all these many summers,” Cole, a Lexington native, says. “I still don’t take it for granted.”
As the Chamber Fest launches its 10th edition, the growth of families and careers among the musicians may have been the most predictable aspect of how the event has evolved. Over the past nine summers, the festival has grown from a neat idea into a groundbreaking event in Lexington music making and presentation.
There are many listeners who are never going to set foot in a concert hall, and if we never step out of the concert hall, we’re never going to reach them.
Nathan Cole, Chamber Music Festival of Lexington artistic director
The initial concept of a few music enthusiasts was bringing Cole, a Tates Creek High School graduate, and a few of his fellow musicians home for a festival that would put chamber music in one of the city’s unique indigenous venues: the horse sales pavilion at Fasig-Tipton.
Almost immediately, the idea began to grow. On a chance meeting after the initial event, founding president Charlie Stone met a composer who sparked the idea of having a composer-in-residence for the festival and commissioning a new work from that writer.
That eventually grew into a partnership between the festival and the Lexington Philharmonic in which the organizations now co-commission a composer every other year to write a new orchestral and chamber work — a fairly distinctive partnership between organizations.
The festival also brought in guest soloists from wind, string and vocal artists, and in 2012, the event began presenting a pre-festival, which has since simply become an extended festival. The first year of the prelude event, the fest brought in a group of mostly graduate-school level musicians for an extended stay. But for four years now, the Houston-based quintet WindSync has come in to play shows specifically geared at getting music in places it is not normally heard, such as bars, restaurants and even downtown street corners during rush hour.
“There are many listeners who are never going to set foot in a concert hall, and if we never step out of the concert hall, we’re never going to reach them,” Cole says. “Reaching them doesn’t mean dumbing down our music because people can sniff that out a mile away. It might mean playing slightly different music, but we’re versatile performers who enjoy that challenge. And we want as many people as possible to hear what we call great music, whether it’s classical or, for instance, the last piece on our Sunday program.”
This year’s festival will bow out with “100 Greatest Dance Hits” by Aaron Jay Kernis, a work for amplified string quartet and guitar that has its roots in traditional chamber music but spins wildly in a variety of directions.
My general goal is for the city of Lexington to take more ownership of the festival. Eventually I would like to see more musicians from Lexington participating in the festival.
Nathan Cole, Chamber Music Festival of Lexington artistic director
Cole says possibly the biggest surprise to him in how the festival has evolved is how accepting of new music the audience has been. The event started before Scott Terrell took the baton of the Lexington Philharmonic, and the area’s classical music offerings tended to be fairly conservative. But now, like the orchestra, the festival routinely programs concerts with a lot — sometimes a majority — of music by recent and living composers.
“Every time I feel like I’m taking a big chance with the programming, our audience is right there with us,” Cole says. “That’s not to say everyone goes gaga over every piece to the same degree or the same way. But our audience is there for our programs and with their financial support, too.”
When the festival started, Cole says he did not think ahead 10 years. But now that it has become a successful enterprise, he can look further down the road and anticipate what another decade or two may bring.
“My general goal is for the city of Lexington to take more ownership of the festival,” Cole says. “Eventually I would like to see more musicians from Lexington participating in the festival, to some degree. We would have to expand beyond two weeks to make that happen, and as an organization we would have to grow. But I welcome that challenge.”
Going to his role as a music educator — and there has been an educational component of the festival from the beginning — Cole continues, “I would love to be one of the first festivals that doesn’t just encourage people to listen, but encourages them to play. That’s a direction I go in in my online work, and it just makes the experience so much richer.”
He compares it to restaurants that invited people in for cooking classes from the chefs: “It’s something you can share with friends, and so is music.”
While we could easily see the festival as Cole bringing music to Lexington, he says he has gained from helping create it and being its artistic director.
“Back then I had much more a fear of rejection,” Cole remembers. “I wanted to be liked and I wanted the music we played to be liked.
“What I discovered over the years is, if you put yourself out there with conviction and you do your best quality work, people are going to find you and appreciate you. I certainly still try to put programs together that people want to listen to. But after 10 years, there’s that comfort level that people will come and expect to hear our best work, so that’s what we give them.”
If you go
Chamber Music Festival of Lexington
What: 10th annual festival featuring the core ensemble of violinists Nathan Cole and Akiko Tarumoto, cellist Priscilla Lee, violist Burchard Tang and pianist Alessio Bax; guest ensemble WindSync; guest soloist Jason Vieaux, guitar; and composer-in-residence Avner Dorman.
When: Through Aug. 28
▪ Aug. 20: MusicWorks retreat concert with WindSync at the Loudoun House, 209 Castlewood Dr. 12:30 p.m. Free.
▪ Aug. 21: WindSync WEKU Campus Concert at Eastern Kentucky University’s Ravine. 6 p.m. Free.
▪ Aug. 22: WindSync pop-up concert at Hunt-Morgan House, 201 N. Mill St. 5:30 p.m. Free.
▪ Aug. 23: WindSync pop-up concert at A Cup of Common Wealth, 105 Eastern Ave. 8:30 a.m. Free and free coffee for concert-goers.
▪ Aug. 23: WindSync pop-up concert. 5:30 p.m. Crank & Boom Ice Cream, 1210 Manchester St. Free.
▪ Aug. 24: Mainstage Concert 1, featuring members of the core ensemble and WindSync with guitarist Jason Vieaux. 7:30 p.m. Fasig-Tipton Pavilion, 2400 Newtown Pike. $35 in advance, $40 at the door, $15 students with valid ID.
▪ Aug. 25: Cabaret Concert featuring the full festival lineup. 7:30 p.m. Al’s Bar, 601 N. Limestone. $15. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations, which must be claimed by 7 p.m.
▪ Aug. 26: Mainstage Concert 2, featuring members of the core ensemble and guitarist Jason Vieaux and the world premiere of Avner Dorman’s “How to Love.” 7:30 p.m. Fasig-Tipton Pavilion, 2400 Newtown Pike. $35 in advance, $40 at the door, $15 students with valid ID.
▪ Aug. 28: Mainstage Concert 3, featuring members of the core ensemble and guitarist Jason Vieaux. 2 p.m. Fasig-Tipton Pavilion, 2400 Newtown Pike. $35 in advance, $40 at the door, $15 students with valid ID.