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    The music begins softly. Notes float among the books and sparkling chandeliers of the high-ceilinged library at Oxmoor Farm. The septet of musicians from the NouLou Chamber Players are in a room built a hundred years ago, performing a Beethoven piece written two centuries ago.

    The music shifts, the players stepping into a bouncy allegro, each instrument getting its say. The wind players sit across from the string players, with a bassist between, kind of forming the ensemble into a “U.” A full-house audience of, oh, maybe 90 are seated in chairs arrayed around the musicians. All seats taken. You can hear the notes sound the second they skip off strings, see the silver keys rocking back and forth on Matt Karr’s bassoon. “Playing in a space like this is so rare anymore,” Karr says later. “In our modern concert settings, you’re often 100 feet or more from the performers, where here, you can literally see us sweat.” Viola player Laura De St. Croix says, “The audience is right there with you. Sometimes when we play something really beautiful, you’ll hear a sigh.”

    In the library, the musicians quicken the tempo. De St. Croix touches her bow to the viola strings in a steady stream of eighth notes, laying down the rhythm. The players hand melodies and harmonies back and forth, violin to clarinet, bassoon to French horn to cello, and back. They’re making Beethoven, and not just any Beethoven. Written in 1800, it’s a famous early piece from young Ludwig, his 20th published work on a list that would eventually number in the hundreds. Before the program, Karr told the audience, “I can imagine Beethoven leaving a concert where his septet had just been performed. Pulling his scarf around his neck, setting out on the streets of Vienna. Maybe a bottle of wine tucked under his arm, whistling new tunes he was thinking up.”

    The library’s high, built-in shelves contain nearly 9,000 books, the private collection of the late prominent Louisville attorney Marshall Bullitt, a link in a family chain of ownership of Oxmoor Farm that dates to when Kentucky was still part of Virginia. The land (behind what is now Oxmoor Mall) was originally deeded to Col. William Christian in 1780 as a grant for service in the Revolutionary War. Alexander Scott Bullitt married Christian’s daughter Priscilla, forming a family that has owned Oxmoor ever since. Over time the farm was parceled among heirs, but in 1906 Marshall Bullitt — who at one point served as solicitor general under President William Howard Taft and argued numerous cases before the U.S. Supreme Court — began reassembling the nucleus of the farm, including the house. Oxmoor is now under the protective wing of the Filson Historical Society.

    Bullitt collected rare books and treatises on mathematics and astronomy, with 300 famous first editions and rare works housed at the University of Louisville, including titles by or about Newton, Einstein, Euclid, Copernicus and Galileo. Oxmoor has the rest of Bullitt’s books, mostly cloth-bound volumes in shades of brown and black, and the occasional vermillion. Filson vice president Julie Scoskie says it’s the largest private library in Kentucky. As one would expect, a brass stepladder on wheels provides access to the “stacks.”

     

    Founded in 2015, the NouLou Chamber Players are the brainchild of cellist Cecelia Huerta-Lauf and De St. Croix, the violist. Today, the group has 20 or so active members (many from the Louisville Orchestra), and features guest appearances. Each July, the musicians gather at the home of one of the members and plan the upcoming season. “The players suggest ideas,” Huerta-Lauf says. “What’s on their bucket list?”

    On Feb. 7, the NouLou players will return to Oxmoor to perform a nonet (nine players) by Louis Spohr. A week later, they’ll be at their home stage, the Conrad-Caldwell mansion, on St. James Court in Old Louisville, for an Arnold Schoenberg piece titled “Verklärte Nacht.” At that venue, the musicians will sometimes set up in the mansion’s front parlor with curved glass windows and parquet oak floors. Sitting next to a carved mahogany fireplace, one can easily imagine concerts in the home a century ago. When more room is required, the concerts move down the hall to the music room. (The players also regularly perform at the retirement community Treyton Oak Towers, where a full-course dinner is part of the program, and on Wednesday evenings at Gravely Brewing on Baxter Avenue.) “We’re always looking for new venues,” Huerta-Lauf says. They hadn’t even heard of the Oxmoor Farm library until a member of the Filson suggested it. “We had no idea it was even here,” De St. Croix says. “But we drove around behind the mall and came to a long tree-lined driveway that leads to the house, and it was all just so beautiful. Then we saw the library — and wow!”

    Did they test the acoustics?

    “We didn’t even think about it,” De St. Croix says with a laugh. (Turns out, the books act as a “damper” at the edges of notes.) “We took one look at the library and said, ‘Let’s go for it!’”

    Karr says, “We hear the breaths players take between passages, even the string players. Sitting close, we can hear each other breathe to take our cues.”

    Find the NouLou Chamber Players' upcoming concerts on their website and Facebook.

    This originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Close for Comfort." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photo by Danny Alexander, dannyalexanderphoto.com

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