Completing Some Unfinished Business at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival

Completing Some Unfinished Business at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival
The porch of the "barn" at the Harbisons' family site.

The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival inevitably has the feel of true intimacy, thanks to its perfomances in the once-upon-a-time barn at the homestead of Rose Mary Harbison, and the genteel commentary of her husband and festival co-founder, John Harbison. Add the fact that a number of performers have returned so often over the two decades or so, and a listener’s return visit often seems like sitting on the edge of a family reunion.

This was never more true than Saturday night, in the first of two performances of the final program of this year’s Festival, “The Old and Unfamiliar.” Along with John and Rose Mary, the participants included husband and wife Whitacre Hill (horn) and Heidi Braun Hill (violin and viola), and Madison Symphony Orchestra principal cellist Karl Lavine, who has been a part of the proceedings so often that he practically qualifies as family.

Even the program shared that old home week sensibility, as two of the works were completions of unfinished Mozart works by pianist/scholar Robert Levin, who was not represented in person by his surpassing pianism (which has been heard here on numerous occasions), but by his uncanny ability to graft new music stylistically indistinguishable from a master such as Mozart.

But the evening began with the Harbisons partnering in Mozart’s Violin Sonata, K. 403, a work with the first two movements intact, but only twenty bars of the finale in manuscript. It was John Harbison who tried his hand at completing the work—in 1968—not long after Levin and the Harbisons began a lifelong friendship and professional relationship. In his opening remarks, Harbison said that to complete the finale probably would have taken Mozart “about a half day’s work; it took me a little longer.”

So Mr. and Mrs. Harbison teamed up as they have so often before, Rose Mary on violin, John at the piano, and the fun was trying to discern the Harbison fingerprint, smudging, as it were, Mozart’s music. Alas, I am not the musical sleuth of many a local auditor, let alone in Levin’s class, but that’s the point in such endeavors: The completer aspires to give us a whole work that sounds whole, without a jarring shift in style.

The next Mozart completion was done just last year by Levin, from the first thirty-five measures of the opening movement of a projected sonata, listed as K. Anh. 48. Harbison pointed out that a particular challenge for Levin here was that Mozart had not reached the point of introducing the second major theme, a typical feature of sonata form. Again the result had more than the ring of truth (and beauty), and the Harbisons acquitted themselves well in the service of two old and familiar friends.

Alternating with the Mozart works were two short sonatas of Purcell that highlighted another great quality of the Token Creek gatherings: Pick any given concert each August, and chances are you’ll learn something worth knowing—I always do. I’ve never paid much attention to Purcell, primarily being thankful that he wrote the theme that Britten used two hundred and fifty years later in the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. But Sonatas Nos. 8 and 6 have triggered a new interest for me. Each work is for two violins (Rose Mary Harbison and Heidi Braun Hill), with Lavine and John Harbison handling the continuo duties on cello and piano. It was No. 6 that held the greater fascination, as it is based on a five-bar “ground,” a repeated bass pattern. Indeed, Lavine did not need music to repeat his insistent descending line, but it was fascinating to keep track of the odd pattern while the violins wove lines of ever-increasing complexity above it. Imagine Pachelbel’s ubiquitous Canon in D with freshness and multi-layered inventiveness.

The second half gave us another Levin completion of a single Mozart movement for violin and piano, but then we heard the first performance of Harbison’s Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano. The brief movements had a stark seriousness compared to everything that had preceded them, with a “Waltz” finale that takes a while to get dancing. The work was written for Rose Mary, and the duo brought it to life with tender affection.

The Festival’s true finale was a most unique work that Mozart did manage to finish, the Quintet for Horn, Violin, Two Violas and Cello. The odd instrumentation was handled by Rose Mary Harbison, Heidi Braun Hill and John Harbison on violas, Lavine again and Whitacre Hill on horn. While Hill handled the concerto-like virtuosity of the finale smoothly, his greater feat may have been in balancing his instrument with the strings in the intimate space. It is a work I had never heard, and it was the kind of treat one comes to expect in the little barn just set back of Highway 19. Here’s to next year…