Notebook: Chamber Music Festival of Lexington, day two

Composer Raymond Lustig greets violinists Nathan Cole and Akiko Tarumoto, tenor Nicholas Phan, cellist Priscilla Lee, and violist Burchard Tang after they gave the world premiere his "Boys' Ambition." Herald-Leader photo by Rich Copley.

Composer Raymond Lustig greets violinists Nathan Cole and Akiko Tarumoto, tenor Nicholas Phan, cellist Priscilla Lee, and violist Burchard Tang after they gave the world premiere his “Boys’ Ambition.” Herald-Leader photos by Rich Copley.

You often leave a concert with a pretty clear idea of a favorite piece or moment. But Saturday night’s presentation of the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington made it hard to play favorites.

The concert featured four works that illuminated different colors and strengths of the six musicians assembled for this year’s event.

The event of Saturday night, as it has been for six of the festival’s seven years, was the world premiere of a work commissioned for the festival. Raymond Lustig’s Boys’ Ambition took a slightly more circuitous route to the Fasig-Tipton Pavilion stage than its predecessors.

The composer, who at one time worked as a molecular biologist, stepped in after the original composer-in-residence bowed out due to the anticipated birth of a child. And Lustig had the festival’s first ever vocalist to work with in tenor Nicholas Phan.

Violinist Nathan Cole, pianist Alessio Bax, page turner Melanie Erena, and cellist Priscilla Lee on stage for Franz Schubert's "Piano Trio No.1."

Violinist Nathan Cole, pianist Alessio Bax, page turner Melanie Erena, and cellist Priscilla Lee on stage for Franz Schubert’s “Piano Trio No.1.”

What Lustig produced fell right in line with Phan’s other performances at this year’s festival; genuine pieces of vocal chamber music that made the tenor part of the ensemble and an integral part of creating the mood Lustig sought to evoke.

In an group of song cycles by Ralph Vaughn-Williams and Franz Schubert that Phan performed through the weekend, and will continue to Sunday afternoon, Boys’ Ambition stood out as a longer work that sought to set a single scene. In this case, it was Mark Twain’s childhood on the Mississippi River and the momentary excitement at the arrival of a riverboat to break the monotony.

Cellist Priscilla Lee and violist Burchard Tang set that mood at the beginning with a yawing, groaning and extended opening that felt like a long afternoon nap in the shade. Phan’s tenor and the bright violins of Nathan Cole and Akiko Tarumoto ushered in the youthful perspective, and  all involved had Twain’s brilliant prose for inspiration.

The ensemble sprang to life as the riverboat arrived, glistening in white with smokestacks and hearty, well-traveled men running the ship, the low strings a continued reminder of where we were. And then, almost as soon as it arrived, the boat departed, and the town went back to sleep in Lee’s cello and Tang’s viola, faint maritime violins still echoing the excitement.

Lee had quite an evening, also playing critical roles in Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F and the concert closer, Franz Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 1 — she gets one more showcase Sunday afternoon with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Sonata for cello and piano to close this year’s festival.

The former was one of several reminders this weekend how good it is to have violinist Tarumoto back after a couple years’ absence. We rightfully get excited by hometown-guy-made-good Cole, the festival’s artistic director and first associate concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But his wife, fellow L.A. Phil violinist Tarumoto, is a fantastic player — you don’t get into the L.A. Phil by being so-so — and the Ravel was an ideal showcase for her sprite tone and arresting stage presence.

The bright Schubert stood in contrast to the concert opener, the first half of Schubert’s Schwanengesang, by Phan and pianist Alessio Bax. The song-cycle, which touched on love, war, and loss, showcased Phan’s engaging manner, the venue of Fasig-Tipton allowing him and Bax to be effectively intimate and overwhelming.

Schwanengesang was the festival’s best showcase for Phan thus far, and it was good to see some of Lexington’s leading vocal music practitioners had turned out for the event. And there is one more chance for residents to catch it, as Bax and Phan will perform the second half of the Schubert work at Sunday afternoon’s show, which will also feature music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Robert Schumann, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich. (Due to other commitments, I will not be able to attend Sunday’s performance.)

Festival executive director Richard Young estimated Saturday’s performance attracted 350 people to the 498-seat pavilion. He said the Sunday show is already the best-selling of the festival in advance tickets, likely due to the $15 price. That show is at 2 p.m.

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