On Memorial Day weekend, the hills near Harrodsburg will resound with music. Not the voiced, sure notes of former Shaker worship tunes, but classical treasures of such beloved composers as Mozart and Brahms played by internationally-renown performers from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City.
For the fifth consecutive year, the Chamber Music Festival of the Bluegrass will fill a spring Saturday and Sunday with exquisite music performed at a National Historic Landmark steeped in a far different, yet equally impressive, tradition.
Less than 30 miles from Lexington, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is the country’s largest restored Shaker community, with 34 restored buildings and 3,000 acres of preserved farmland tucked into Central Kentucky’s rolling terrain. Nineteenth-century America’s best-known communal society, the Shakers established the settlement in 1805. Its population grew to a peak of 500 in the 1800s, then dwindled until closing for good in 1910.
So-called because they embraced worship through wildly gyrating dance movements, the Shakers believed no manmade musical instrument could improve on man’s greatest God-given one, the human voice. Thus, more than 20,000 songs were written by Shakers and all were sung a capella (without instruments).
These days, the rafters of the 1820 Meeting House reverberate seasonally with glorious solo vocal performances of Shaker music. And in a modern twist, man-made instruments will fill that same historic structure, built specifically to enhance the sound of acoustic music, with exquisite chamber music as one of two venues for the Chamber Music Festival of the Bluegrass.
An intimate series, the festival will feature four concerts. Two morning performances take place in the Meeting House, while two afternoon engagements are in the Meadow View Barn. Restored specifically for the event, the open-air tobacco barn is perched atop a hill surrounded by hand-laid rock walls and is acoustically top notch.
All participating performers are highly acclaimed: the Orion String Quartet, pianist Inon Barnatan, clarinetist Jose-Franch-Ballester and violinist Ida Kafavian. All were selected by cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, husband-and-wife artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS), a multigenerational selection of expert musicians. The pair has served as the Kentucky weekend festival’s artistic directors since its inception in 2007.
During afternoon lectures both days, composer Patrick Castillo will give a talk that provides structural analysis and historic content for the musical works that follow.
“According to Lincoln Center, their musicians all want to come here,” said David Larson, director of strategic development for Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. “They love Shaker Village and the enthusiastic Central Kentucky audiences and performing in the tobacco barn. David Finckel and Wu Han are extremely interested in outreach, and they feel this festival could grow into an internationally known event.”
Ranked among the world’s most esteemed and influential classical musicians today, the couple travel the globe performing a repertoire that spans nearly all available classic and contemporary literature for cello and piano. They taught alongside the late Isaac Stern, have established chamber music training workshops for young artists in Korea and Taiwan, and are founders and directors of Music at Menlo, a festival and institute in Silicon Valley. Though Finckel will not attend the Shaker Village event this year, Wu Han will fly in for a special Friday night performance for festival patrons.
The Chamber Music Festival of the Bluegrass was the brainchild of Finckel and George Foreman, former director of the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College in Danville and creator of the town’s wildly popular Great American Brass Band Festival. Until 2011, the Norton Center has managed the event; this year, Shaker Village takes the reins.
“It’s a very positive move for us,” Larson explained. “The festival attracts scores of people who may never have visited here or who haven’t been here in awhile and become reacquainted with Shaker Village. We were chosen as the initial venue because it’s a gorgeous place. We have 3,000 acres and lots of barns. I think we were kind of a natural.”
Francke concurs. “The beauty and tranquility of the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill provides the ideal atmosphere for a chamber music festival,” he said. “The morning concerts in the Meeting House, instituted in the second year, have grown in attendance to full capacity, and the afternoon concerts in the barn have been sold out since the festival’s inception.”
Capacity seating in the former venue is 200, with 400 to 500 in the latter, where sunshine paints golden interior stripes and any errant breeze falls captive.
“Where else would you be able to hear music of this caliber in a barn?” says Aimee Darnell, publicist for Shaker Village. “Music aficionados have described it as a sublime experience.”
After feeding their souls with music, festival guests can enjoy after-concert buffet suppers on the lawn and in the Trustees’ Office Dining Room (reservations required), or may enjoy picnic lunches and suppers under the maples at the West Family Dwelling (no reservations needed).