- Courtesy Of Ricki Quinn, Elyse Frelinger
- Niv Ashkenazi and Leah Kohn
Vermont is the lucky host of a surprising number of summer chamber music festivals, from Marlboro Music Festival in the south to the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival in Colchester. But, until recently, the eastern edge of the state — Norwich in Vermont and Hanover and Lebanon in New Hampshire — had no such events.
Leah Kohn, a Los Angeles resident, Hanover native and bassoonist, set out to do something about that. This week, Kohn, 31, and her husband, violinist Niv Ashkenazi, 32, will launch the Oak Hill Music Festival. Named for a nature area in Hanover that Kohn frequented in childhood, the inaugural festival encompasses three concerts in the span of four days, held in churches in Lebanon and Norwich.
The Oak Hill Music Festival will pack a punch in that short time, with three radically different programs. Each showcases little-known composers, both historical and contemporary. The first concert opens with the world premiere of a work written for the festival by Amotz Plessner, a composer for Marvel movies and Netflix series and a friend of Kohn's family who once spent time in the Upper Valley.
Each concert engages all nine of the festival's musicians, who include Ashkenazi and Kohn. The couple's aim is to introduce audiences to all manner of instrumental combinations: oboe and clarinet duo; oboe, bassoon and piano trio; string quartet; piano quintet; and so on.
During a FaceTime call with Kohn and Ashkenazi from their hotel room in Hanover, the couple's sheer energy and delight in making and sharing music were evident.
"The truth is, as musicians, what brings us the greatest pleasure is to try to connect with our audiences," Kohn said. "We like to be casual, share what we love, have a conversation about it. We don't want to be on a pedestal."
Ashkenazi added, "Talking with the audience during a performance — that's a big part of what we do. We share anecdotes about the piece, why we like it. It's all about giving the audience a wonderful experience. We get to know the audience, and they get to know the musicians."
Both fell in love with their instruments at an early age.
Ashkenazi was 2 and a half when, while visiting family in Tel Aviv, he stopped to hear a busker on the street and made his parents stay until the performer had finished.
"I started asking for a violin," he recalled. "My parents asked me, 'When do you want to start, since you don't seem ready for this yet?' I said, 'Six.' I just doubled my age; it seemed to make sense."
Kohn's musical education in her youth was intimately tied to Vermont. In third grade at the Bernice A. Ray School in Hanover, she heard a wind trio and fell in love with the bassoon. Her parents brought her to Janet Polk, the principal bassoonist of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra.
As Polk recalled during a phone call, "She wanted to start with me when she was 8, but her hands were way too small. So she said, 'I'll drink a lot of milk and come back when I'm 9.' She was so determined." Polk taught Kohn until she left to go to college at the Manhattan School of Music.
Kohn also played in the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association in Colchester through high school, under conductor Troy Peters, and spent summers at the Kinhaven Music School in Weston.
She and Ashkenazi met as master's students in music at the Juilliard School, from which they graduated in 2014. Ashkenazi, who is from Los Angeles, had earned his bachelor's there, as well. He studied with Itzhak Perlman for his master's degree and did summer studies in the Perlman Music Program on Shelter Island, N.Y. Many of the Oak Hill musicians are alumni of the latter program.
After Juilliard, the two decamped west, where Kohn earned a doctorate in musical arts from the University of Southern California. They plan to continue to live in LA during the year and return to Hanover each summer for the festival, which they hope to expand over time.
Kohn and Ashkenazi are not the first young musician couple to launch a chamber music series in the area. In 2011, the Northfield-based husband-and-wife duo of double bassist and composer Evan Premo and soprano Mary Bonhag founded Scrag Mountain Music, a year-round series that is still going strong.
Like that musical duo, Kohn and Ashkenazi are enriching the repertoire with an unusual combination of instruments. They must arrange or commission all of the music they play when performing as the duo Dyad, apart from Niccolò Paganini's three duets for violin and bassoon. The first festival program, titled "From the New Hampshire Woods," includes three arias from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro, which they arranged for their instruments.
A major influence on the couple's musical interests has been Ashkenazi's involvement since 2017 in Violins of Hope, a collection of restored string instruments that belonged to Jewish musicians before and during the Holocaust. In 2020, Ashkenazi recorded an album called Niv Ashkenazi: Violins of Hope, produced by Kohn and released on Albany Records, that was named one of the 10 best classical recordings that year by the Chicago Tribune.
That experience led Kohn and Ashkenazi to research 20th-century Jewish composers who endured persecution, some of whose works they feature in the festival. One such composer who was famous in his time is Leó Weiner of Budapest, whose String Trio in G Minor, Op. 6 from 1908 is scheduled for the first concert. Kohn and Ashkenazi looked into a four-year gap in his résumé and discovered that the then-president of the Budapest Academy of Music, Ernst von Dohnányi, protected Weiner during World War II.
The Polish composer Szymon Laks was spared the gas chambers to serve as concertmaster of the men's orchestra at Auschwitz. He survived to attend the premiere of his String Quartet No. 3 in Paris in 1945, which he composed during the six months after liberation. The piece will be played at the festival's second concert, "Paris 1880-1947."
Laks "continued to compose [after the war], which was unusual," Kohn commented, adding, "There are many composers who, because of the impact of the Holocaust on their career, didn't reach the same level of recognition that they might have."
Kohn and Ashkenazi are old hands at programming and performing, but they hadn't previously raised funds for such a series. Fortunately, they said, the festival is now fully funded, including a rental house where the musicians will stay. Major support came from presenting sponsors Jim and Mimi Weinstein of Hanover and the Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation, also of Hanover.
The couple got timely advice from Ben Cadwallader — the former executive director of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra who now heads the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. A violinist friend of the couple's introduced them.
Cadwallader, Kohn recalled, suggested "making sure that we were doing things from the place of wanting to share and connect. We already knew what and why we wanted to do it. He helped us verbalize that in the right way."
Kohn, who said that the pandemic prevented her from seeing her parents for two years after her and Ashkenazi's marriage in 2019, easily verbalized the couple's main motivation for starting Oak Hill Music Festival.
"I think the pandemic made us reevaluate what we want to create, what is important to us," she said. "And, for me, I realized I wanted to share what I do here and have a sense of connection."