Arts and Culture

The 25th Token Creek Chamber Music Festival: Happy Anniversary From Start To Finish

What has set the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival apart for a quarter-century is that the programs invariably make you think. That is exactly what John Harbison focused on in his opening remarks Saturday night. The first TCCMF programs were put together with music that he and co-founder and co-artistic director Rose Mary Harbison had thought about for a long time. These were not works one was likely to encounter at your typical midsummer music celebrations, and they weren't interested in playing that kind of music at their own festival, or anywhere else. They also believed they would draw an audience willing to think about this music with them. Twenty-five festivals later it is safe to say they have proved their point repeatedly. The fact that they have done so with world class collaborators (local and far-flung) and present the event in what used to be the barn of Rose Mary's family farm back in the 1930s only adds cherished characteristics to an event that would rank as "can't-miss" on its artistic merits alone.

Each work heard Saturday night (and presented again Sunday afternoon in a matinee that had already sold out) had some particular connection to past Festivals to one degree or another. The opening work consisted of four movements of the original seven from J.S. Bach's Partita No. 3, BWV 1006. John mentioned that he has heard a violinist "in dialogue" with the work for four decades, which has made him think about it. He "interviewed" Rose Mary about it before she played, and she had some interesting insights into the dance origins of the work (and we were reminded that until early in the twentieth century it was standard not to play the entire work). The contrast of the second movement "Loure" was stark following the famous opening "Preludio." Here and in the ensuing "Gavotte en rondeau" Rose Mary offered the first example of the evening of the finest playing I've heard from her in the five seasons I've attended the TCCMF. The juxtaposition of the jaunty gavotte theme with the ever-increasing weight of the intervening episodes was, shall we say, very well thought-out.

Haydn's Trio in D, Hob. XV:24 was no less than the seventeenth piano trio of his presented over the years at Token Creek. John on piano and Rose Mary again on violin were joined by Madison Symphony principal cellist Karl Lavine. I was reminded once more how special it is to sit about eight feet from performers such as these, who understand the true nature of great chamber music; the work truly seemed to have a breathing life of its own.

World premieres are no strangers to the TCCMF, and this time we were blessed with the first hearing of Jeffrey Stanek's "The Direction in Which the Wind Moves." Again John Harbison had a short dialogue with Stanek, in which we learned that the title came after the piece was well along, but was in fact inspired by a walk Stanek took in the adjacent Token Creek County Park, and pondered the sound and nature of wind in the prairie grass. And in three brief, connected movements he made us think (and hear and feel) it too, with Harbison on piano, Laura Burns on violin, Lavine on cello, and in their Festival debuts, flutist Dawn Lawler and MSO principal clarinetist Joseph Morris. Impressionistic gestures, including toneless taps on the wood wind keys before the breath was added, created a sense of wind appearing suddenly out of nothingness. The piano enters with bell-like chords answered with overlapping high notes from the flute and clarinet. Violin and cello soon stir up a turbulent sequence, and it dies away with surprising suddenness, the work ending with a violin motif practically dissolving before our ears as it descended. The applause was strong, and Harbison wasted little time in saying "Again! Not because we screwed it up, but because you should hear it again." And as he had alluded to, all new music benefits from a swift second hearing. I didn't overhear any complaints over intermission.

Professor Harbison prefaced the second half with remarks about C.P.E. Bach, the second and most famous son of J.S. Bach. The year 2014 marks the tricentennial of his birth, and it is just in the last few decades that a more complete appreciation of this prolific composer is coming into focus. His life overlapped Vivaldi, Telemann, Handel, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven (for starters!), and indeed during his lifetime he was far more famous than his father. About half of his output has just come to light and published in critical editions in the last forty years, and Harbison selected the Sonata V from 1776 (essentially a piano trio). The keyboard part was peripatetic to say the least, the violin and cello (Rose Mary and Karl Lavine) punctuating the piano's turgid lines with hammer-like blows, in both the outer movements. The central "Poco andante" provided the briefest of respites. It certainly gives us plenty to think about…including digging into more of C.P.E. Bach's output.

The evening concluded with the Midwest premiere of Harbison's "Songs America Loves to Sing," from 2004. His initial idea was to gather tunes familiar to the general audience, much as J.S. Bach took melodies from the Lutheran hymnal and created chorales of great complexity from them. Alas, Harbison deemed his original intent a failure, as our culture lacks the kind of universal recognition of that many tunes. Certainly at least half of the ten he selected qualify: "Amazing Grace," "Aura Lee," "St. Louis Blues" and "We Shall Overcome." The movements alternate between "Solo" and "Canon." The ensemble was the same as in Stanek's piece, piano, violin, cello, flute and clarinet, with the same players, except for Rose Mary Harbison on violin.

Despite the composer's own misgivings, the work generally overflows with the unique humor and deft instrumental combinations. The composition really takes off at mid-point with #5 setting "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" in an easy swing, with #6, "St. Louis Blues," quite naturally growing out of that sensibility. Then in "Poor Butterfly" Joseph Morris spun out a long solo/cadenza that gave us a chance to savor all of his individual mastery; when the others join the movement develops into the most profound statement of the whole piece. Most fitting of all, the work closes with the "Anniversary Song." Happy Anniversary indeed, TCCMF! This twenty-fifth incarnation continues Wednesday night with loads of Chopin and Scarlatti from pianist Judith Gordon, and closes this weekend (Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 4 p.m.) with C.P.E. Bach, Debussy, Ravel and Schubert. That should give you something to think about now and later. 

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