30th year for the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival

Event hosted by the Harbisons expands offerings
30th year for the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival
Photo courtesy ARS Nova Arts Management
Rose Mary and John Harbison (left) lead a Token Creek Chamber Music Performance in 2018.

This fan of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival can attest personally to the quality of the concerts since at least 2010. And any local fan of hearing Mozart in an intimate and pastoral setting would concur that the event has been a favorite musical farewell to summer.

Held in a former barn on the family farm of Rose Mary Harbison, she and her husband John Harbison are celebrating the 30th anniversary of festival with an expanded number of concerts.

Not only does the festival start a week earlier than usual — this Friday and Saturday, August 16-17 at 5 p.m. — but does so with a treat: a jazz concert. The “Token Creek Festival House Band” will play two sets in a true club milieu: in a candlelit café setting with refreshments available tableside.

Many classical music fans may not know that John Harbison has long loved jazz. After all, his reputation rests in part on the 1987 Pulitzer Prize he was awarded for “Flight into Egypt,” a MacArthur Fellowship and his opera, “The Great Gatsby,” which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1999.

In a phone interview last week, this writer learned just how deep Harbison’s jazz roots go.

“When I was first in college,” Harbison says, “I really didn’t know if I was going to focus on classical music or jazz. It was something of a case of ‘mistaken identity.’ After my junior year I had the opportunity to attend either the Tanglewood Music Center or the Lenox School of Jazz. I ended up at Tanglewood and started focusing on concert music, but I kept playing jazz.”

He added, “Ten years ago I switched my teaching duties at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] to jazz, founding the Vocal Jazz Ensemble. The change in emphasis has been very refreshing.”

The second weekend of the 2019 Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, set for Aug. 24- 25, focuses on the music of Brahms. Along with returning TCF members, including Rose Mary on violin, the estimable pianist Janice Weber will make a welcome return.

One last chance to celebrate John Harbison turning 80 (which he did last December) will take place Wednesday, Aug. 28. The program, titled “Then and Now: Words & Music,” combines music of Mozart, Bach and Harbison with poet Lloyd Schwartz reading the verse that formed the basis of a new Harbison song cycle.

The closing weekend of the festival, Aug. 31-Sept. 1, is titled simply “The Band.” It features the return of the powerhouse piano couple of Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang. He will perform his chamber arrangement of Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 4,” and Chuang will certainly dazzle in compositions by Ravel and Liszt.

Asked what the future holds for the Token Creek Festival, Harbison says, “We [he and the festival’s board of directors] are always thinking of the future, and each year go over thoroughly the reasons we want to go on — and what the possibilities are for a time when Rose Mary and I might not be the presenters.”

A Token Creek Chamber Music Festival without the Harbisons is difficult to imagine. If and when that time comes, we can hope it will continue to live by John Harbison’s words included in the press release announcing the 2019 season in which he captured fully the scope of the endeavor in such a unique setting:

“In our small country barn, we have always remained devoted to the scale and address of chamber music, which speaks as often in a whisper as in a shout. Where larger musical institutions have been habitually frustrated by trying to live the business model of growth, we have remained devoted to the intensity of the experience, which explains why the music never goes away, rather than to claims of numbers, which begs the music to change its very nature.

“Our conviction is that today’s composers, like Schubert and Mozart, are still striving to embody daily experience, make connection to the natural world and ask philosophically and spiritually unanswerable questions, surrounded and interrupting silence, asking only for our most precious commodity: time. We continue to look for valuable ways to offer this transaction to our listeners, and are grateful for their interest over so many years.”

Greg Hettmansberger writes about the Madison-area opera, jazz and classic music scene for madisonmagazine.com.