Token Creek Chamber Festival closes out another summer

29 years on, intimate concert series cherished
Token Creek Chamber Festival closes out another summer
Photos courtesy of Sarah Schaffer
John Harbison and Rose Mary Pederson put on the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival every year.

Rose Mary Pederson grew up on a farm just a disc golf’s throw from the myriad joys of Token Creek County Park, just south of Highway 19 and off of Highway 51. Eventually she began a professional career as a violinist that is ongoing, and married composer John Harbison. Over the ensuing decades, the couple spent much of their time in Boston, teaching, composing and performing.

But beginning in 1989, they started returning every August to the family farm for an aural harvest that is the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, among the most unique and cherished experience for classic music aficionados. Whatever crops have been grown for consumption at the Pederson farm have paled next to the bounty of music that has flourished there every August.

This year marks the 29th annual festival. Occasionally over the last few years, the concert series was rumored to be near its end, but happily that worry has proven unfounded. And this year is a particularly good year to celebrate, as John Harbison turns 80 this December.

Much as John DeMain’s reputation is far greater away from the podium where he conducts the Madison Symphony Orchestra, so it seems the case with John Harbison and the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival. Part of it may be due to the fact that the Harbisons don’t spend much time in Madison, save for the month of August, and that the festival can only accommodate the 130 that can pack into the barn.

Harbison is known in the classical world at large as a winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1987, a MacArthur Fellowship holder in 1989 and the composer of “The Great Gatsby,” commissioned by and premiered at the Metropolitan Opera. He’s had six symphonies recorded by the Boston Symphony and continues to compose compelling music.

The festival has found a tried-and-true formula: three concerts and five performances on a theme or set of composers or style that jockey for the concert-goers’ rapt attention.

This year the concert series is simply dubbed “Harvest” with Program I on August 25 and 26 at 4 p.m. The juxtaposition of music on the program is a fascinating one: J.S. Bach with contemporary composer James Primosch — a star the Harbisons appear to have had no trouble enticing to the farm. Primosch’s music is influenced by his work as a church musician and love of jazz. (Harbison also shares these passions as he has directed Emmanuel Music in Boston since 2007, and jazz was once a mainstay at the festival.)

Program II will be heard only on Wednesday, August 29 at 7:30 p.m, with the Kepler Quartet playing the music by Ben Johnston, Henry Cowell, Mario Lavista and Stefano Scodanibbio. If you are unfamiliar with these modern composers, you’ll come to appreciate their work after hearing it in such an intimate setting and talking to the players and the Harbisons about it.

Program III as always sits on that bittersweet cusp of Labor Day weekend, with performances on September 1 and 2 at 4 p.m. This is a more traditional program, with Schubert songs sharing the bill with Mozart, Haydn — and Harbison. The motto of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival has always been simple and true: “Token Creek, a world apart.” And it’s always been one of the best ways to bid a reluctant farewell to summer in Madison.

Greg Hettmanberger writes about jazz, opera and classical music for