I must begin with a full disclosure – I am hopelessly biased in my writing. About six years ago, I remember the discordant looks I got when I said that I ran the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington. I was in my early twenties, scraggly with semi-kempt facial hair and strong opinions – not exactly the picture of a chamber music enthusiast. But my deep affinity for the music was genuine – and I still hold it today (right alongside the other two).
So why? What is it about this music, which conjures up the image of powdered wigs and gilded wall trim, that can be engaging and electrifying for a member of what the American Conservative calls “Generation ‘Meh’”? I suppose it really breaks down into three reasons, each of which I will discuss separately.
The first reason is the music itself.
Chamber music is a fantastical journey in musical collaboration, with threads that grace so many different genres. Rooted in Medieval and Renaissance home-music and consort playing, early chamber music – and consequent traditions – bear a striking resemblance to old time music of Appalachian tradition. The musical complexity and intimacy of the chamber music ensemble are echoed in jazz, modern bluegrass, and Eastern European folk traditions. The intentional and notated nature of it are – naturally – tied to the greater classical music repertoire of the symphony, opera, and ballet. Contemporary chamber music can even resemble the driven pulse of electronic artists like Aphex Twin.
Many of these genres could be easily lumped in with the technical definition of chamber music – music played by a small ensemble in an intimate space with one performer per part. While jazz, old time, and bluegrass all could fit into this typology easy enough, many purists don’t agree with this broad interpretation. So, I talk about it in a slightly different way: interconnectedness.
No better representation of the interconnectedness of chamber music could be found than the Chamber Music Festival that is endearingly rooted in our place – Lexington, Kentucky – through co-founder and Artistic Director Nathan Cole.
The Chamber Music Festival of Lexington has a penchant for pulling on these threads of musical connection until they achieve some semblance of cellular fusion. Last year, jazz was the genre which was consumed by this interconnectedness, with the festival featuring jazz violinist (and Lexington native) Zach Brock and his trio, Triptych. Their performance of Bassist Matt Ulery’s, Become Giant, was a standout of my musical year. It perfectly blended the improvisatory flexing of jazz with the delicate communication of chamber music.
This year, Ben Sollee, another Lexington musical legend, will be joining the festival. Ben’s music is hard to describe, but I would put it somewhere on the American music spectrum with Appalachian Old Time, Western Kentucky Bluegrass, and the very broad “Americana”. It will be fascinating to see how his chordal, flowing music that hearkens to traditional Kentucky folk music integrates with the other music programmed this year – especially folk-driven music like that of Leos Janacek or Edvard Greig.
The second reason is the community that the music creates.
The intimacy of chamber music handily carries over into the chamber music audience that it creates. There is something about the experience of watching this music that bonds you both with the artists themselves and the folks sitting all around you.
This type of connection – so hard to define, yet so clearly identifiable – is one of the clear draws of the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington, and could even be a reason for its success.
Each year, the festival brings back the same core artists, and the same Ensemble-in-Residence. After 10+ years of coming to Lexington, world-class artists Alessio Bax, Burchard Tang, Akiko Tarumoto, and Priscilla Lee have become family to many in Lexington. After performances you will see hugs and closely-spoken conversations about the feelings that the music evokes in both the artists and the listeners. Audience members will pair off with the artists, going to drinks at Kentucky Native Cafe or a late-night dinner at Charlie Brown’s.
All of this comfort with the audience, built through human relationships, brings with it a greater emotional connection in the musicians, and more complex and nuanced musicality along with it.
It also impacts the audience.
I vividly remember a performance years ago of Olivier Messiaen’s, Quartet for the End of Time, written during the composer’s time in a German Concentration Camp, and debuted by fellow prisoners in the camp itself. The intense emotional energy in the room was thick and palpable – something that happens only when an audience and ensemble are willing to be vulnerable with their emotions.
The third reason is the environment of the performances themselves.
Answer this question honestly – how often do you find yourself among neighbors, in a quiet, dark space without the piercing blue glow of screens or clamor of notifications?
We all have a habit of romanticizing the time before smartphones and social media. The landscape of the 20th century certainly had less pings and beeps, but the human attention span has always been evolved to notice the quick movements and slight distractions that, in another time, could warn us of approaching predators.
That being said, it is rare these days to give yourself the space to be contemplative and fully immersed in an experience.
Even for a generation that is said to prefer experiences over assets, my generational peers are so often distracted by the cacophony of breaking news or incoming work emails that many of us seem to be losing the focus muscle altogether. For me, this lack of focus and constant stimulation seems to sap my ability to slow down and be intentional with my life.
When I was running the festival, we developed a somewhat radical Ensemble-in-Residence program – each year it features the wind quintet WindSync – that brought chamber music to street corners, bars, and impromptu locations throughout the city. I distinctly remember the euphoria of getting concerts out of the hall. But as I have aged, and my life has gotten more complex, challenging, and emotional, I have found myself increasingly reverent for the calm quiet of a concert hall.
So, for a few hours this August, I am grateful to have a chance to be in a space where everything is done with extraordinary intention. Surrounded by melodies and harmonies that span centuries, I can truly forget about the constant idling of my 21st century attention span. I can be attentive, among people I care about, sharing in the unique experience that is chamber music.
The monasterial stillness of a chamber music performance is something not to be missed in 2018, the year of distraction.
And we are lucky to be able to experience this through a world-class chamber music festival like ours.
Ours is a festival that clearly understands and draws from the tapestry of its musical influences and legacies, and asserts the potential for chamber music to rejoin popular music. It programs standards of chamber music repertoire, but brings in artists from outside genres to collaborate. It pulls the music out of the hall and onto street corners – but it still allows the tradition of the dark, intentional space (that I so love) to continue.
I may be prohibitively biased in regards to chamber music – and particularly this festival – but I do believe that all of our 2018’s could be improved with the stillness of witnessing this music. Why not spend that time among friends and neighbors, experiencing it together? You may think that I am surrendering to my sentimentality for art form, but then again, maybe my life could be improved with a little more sentimentality and fewer strong opinions.
Richard Young is former Executive Director of the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington. He currently serves on the festival’s board of directors.