I had a happy 65th birthday. Besides my initiation into Medicare, I had the love of family and friends, and I got to listen to extraordinary chamber musicians. And then there was Arthur Rubinstein.
If you’ve got a few minutes, I’ll tell you about the Chamber Music Festival of the Bluegrass and the joke my friend Ted Wathen told to award winning musicians—pianist Wu Han and her husband, cellist David Finckel.
My garden, a merciless tyrant, gave me my birthday off. No weeding; no deadheading. ‘Minnie Pearl’, took a back seat to chamber music. Phlox x ‘Minnie Pearl’ had been performing for two weeks and was still going strong, even when the heat and humidity arrived during the last week of May. Indian pink Spigelia marilandica was coming on.
The rolling Bluegrass countryside was emerald green. Some claim that they can see blue tints in the fuzzy flowers of bluegrass, Poa pratensis a non-native British import. I can’t see any blue coloring at all, but there’s no sense taking issue with Kentucky’s brand name or a good story.
The story of Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, KY, is a more authentic one. The Shakers were excellent furniture makers and seedsmen. Their agrarian economy was supported by a robust seed business. Crops were grown and seed crops were floated down river to market. The Shaker community collapsed after the Civil War, at the height of the Industrial Revolution.
A heroic and expensive restoration in the early 1960s brought the architectural integrity of Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill back to life. Today there are herb and vegetable gardens, vintage apple trees and 3,000 acres of farmland, including 1200 acres of meadows planted with mostly native grasses and perennials.
The venue for the late Saturday afternoon concert was an old tobacco barn. I’d spent sweltering summer days when I was in college, straddling tulip poplar rails, high up in the top of the barns like this, hanging tobacco to cure. I’d never imagined that the acoustics of a drafty tobacco barn could be so accommodating for music.
The stage was set for an evening of music composed by the Russian heavyweights Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev’s Quintet in G minor for Two Violins, Viola and Cello was the highlight. Pianist Wu Han introduced the piece and said if she were paid a penny for every note she played, the tab would come to $32,000.
“A trilled chord, a freshening of tempo and the presentation of the agitated main theme mark the start of the movement’s sonata form; the tender subsidiary subject, in a brighter key, is largely entrusted to the piano.”
The performance was magnificent.
Cocktails followed at the West Family Dwelling at Shaker Village, hosted by Festival patrons Julie and Bill Ballard. Julie is on the Shaker Village Board. The adjacent meadow was full of yellow flowering Coreopsis lanceolata, a species not reported in Kentucky until 1941 and likely introduced from farther west. Ted Wathen congratulated Wu Han and David Finckel.
He then said he had a story to tell.
Ted, a professional photographer, had gone to New York to do a commercial photo shoot. He went to the Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant for dinner. Nearby, he noticed another diner working on a huge platter of oysters. Ted struck up a conversation. His new acquaintance, it turned out, was the son of concert pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Ted commented on what a remarkable pianist his father had been. “Be careful how you say pianist!” the son said. Ted, a little surprised, asked what he meant.
Arthur Rubinstein’s son began the joke.
“At one point Rochester comes up to Jack Benny and asks, “Do you have any pets?”
Benny, a popular comedian on radio and the early days of television, says, “Well, yes I have three dogs, Eenie, Meenie and Rubinstein.” Rochester, Benny’s butler and valet, asks how the dogs got their names.
Benny says, “Eenie is the littlest, Meenie is the meanest and Rubinstein because he’s the peein’ist.”
Stay tuned on September 9th at 9:00 EST for PBS Live from Lincoln Center Simple Gifts Chamber Music program, filmed onsite at last year’s 2015 Chamber Music Festival of the Bluegrass.
on June 8, 2016 at 7:49 am, in the category Unusually Clever People, What’s Happening.