Howard Bakken got his Masters Degree from the Yale School of Music 50 years ago. And viola player Edwin Kaplan of The Tesla Quartet — one of two young, world-class chamber groups Bakken is hosting this month in Hendersonville — has a graduate degree from Yale, too. Also, Brad Ulrich, the First Trumpet player in the Smoky Mountain Brass Quintet, performing later in the spring, was a good friend of Bakken’s organ teacher at the University of Illinois.
And so Bakken, director of Hendersonville Chamber Music, jokes that he is “just trying to bring all my friends home.”
While those college connections are loose, Bakken makes the point that the world of classical and chamber music is, in fact, quite small. And by bringing such high-caliber musicians to Hendersonville, he’s doing his part to make it smaller still.
A retired public-school teacher, Bakken is a lifelong admirer of the genre. Under his direction, Hendersonville Chamber Music hosts four performances every year. The nonprofit got its start about 10-12 years ago, as an offshoot of the Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival. From the beginning, events routinely drew 75 to 100 people, says Bakken. But for many years, the group kept a relatively low profile. “I’ve been in Hendersonville for [a long time],” Bakken says. But he’d never even heard of Hendersonville Chamber Music until a handful of years ago.
He became the organization’s leader in 2012, with the goal of getting the word out about the impressive concert series the group stages every year. “My missionary zeal took over,” he says with a laugh.
Part of Bakken’s goal is to broaden the public’s perception of what exactly constitutes chamber music. “Time was,” he says, “people thought chamber music was only a string quartet. Maybe a piano or string trio.” Under his direction, Hendersonville Chamber Music has sought to carefully expand that definition. One of the first bookings the group made with that in mind was the acclaimed viola-flute-harp ensemble Fire Pink Trio. Since very few works have been written specifically for that configuration — Debussy is one of the few who composed for those three instruments — Bakken says that the trio “pushed the envelope and commissioned new works.” In the process, they and other like-minded young ensembles are bringing chamber music into the 21st century.
Pragmatic scheduling keeps locals in mind, however. Hendersonville Chamber Music positions its concert series between March and May; that way, the performances are less likely to be canceled due to inclement winter weather. The series is also designed not to conflict with other obligations potential concertgoers might have: it concludes before Mother’s Day (May 14 this year) and graduation ceremonies.
Concerts are held at the First Congregational Church just west of downtown. Because many of the touring performers are in great demand, Bakken routinely books the roster as much as a year in advance. That means the program for each performance is available for review months before each show. Bakken says that helps, because there’s a certain sort of concertgoer who wants to know exactly what pieces will be performed. He seeks to satisfy those traditionalists — as well as others who might be a bit more musically adventurous.
Founded in 2006 at the Manhattan School of Music, The Zodiac Trio is one of this season’s highlights. Like Fire Pink Trio, their instrument combination is unusual. Pianist Riko Higuma, clarinetist Kliment Krilovskiy, and violinist Vanessa Mollard present a winning combination of classic and modern compositions. The March 26 program will include works by Aram Khachaturian, Peter Shickele, Béla Bartók, and other composers. “The number-one priority is always the melodic integrity of the original piece,” says Krilovskiy.
He adds that The Zodiac Trio has matured in its time together. “When we were younger, we were overzealous,” he admits. “Our pieces were incredibly fast, extremely on edge.” These days, the Trio takes a much more assured approach. “Now we have the possibility to slow down, look inward, and more into the music,” Krilovskiy says. “We’re not scared to say, ‘Hey, let’s do a slow piece for an encore.’”
But even as the group falls into a seasoned groove, Hendersonville Chamber Music does its part to make classical performances accessible to a younger audience. “We admit students without charge,” says the broad-minded Bakken, “whether they’re in nursery school or in a graduate program.”
The Hendersonville Chamber Music Series opens Sunday, March 5, with the Tesla Quartet. It continues Sunday, March 26, with the Zodiac Trio; Sunday, April 9 with the Smoky Mountain Brass Quintet; and concludes Sunday, May 7, with Miles Hoffman and Fabio Parrini. All concerts start at 3pm at the First Congregational Church (1735 5th Ave. W.). General-admission tickets are $25, or $80 for a season subscription. For more information, call 828-808-2314, 828-696-2118, or see hendersonvillechambermusic.org.