A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Aug 29, 2011
12:52 PM
Classically Speaking

Double Dose of a Triple Threat at Token Creek

Double Dose of a Triple Threat at Token Creek

The opening two programs of this year’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival might have been dubbed “The Robert Levin Show.” Of course, this consummate musician would never have allowed such approbation; his pianistic mastery is always placed at the service of the composer whose music he brilliantly illuminates, and his skillful insights into the reconstruction of incomplete works reflect a lifetime of scholarly application which adds to our already rich catalogue of masters such as Mozart and Beethoven.

Oh, and he’s also a collaborator in the best sense of the word, as he teamed with pianist Ya-Fei Chuang in the opening program of August 24. A wide-ranging program spanned one hundred years from Debussy to Harbison, and as Ms. Chuang is also Mrs. Levin, it can be said that this is a musical marriage truly made in heaven.

Lest we overlook the foundational aspects of the Festival, it is after all the locally cherished event fostered these twenty-two years by composer John Harbison and his violinist spouse, Rose Mary Harbison, with the proceedings pastorally unfolding on her family’s former farm on Highway 19. Surely some longtime fans count the days until they can return to “the barn,” with its eclectic and rustic intimacy.

There was a fascinating connection from one work to another in the concert for two pianos, opening with Debussy’s first artistic response to World War I, “En Blanc et Noir.” As is always the case, John Harbison provided compelling glimpses into the salient features of this and the other works on the program. Even an experienced listener would undoubtedly miss a few special moments if not for Harbison’s elucidation.

At once we were made aware of the incredibly matched tone and touch of the two pianists; without such a close vantage point, it would be virtually impossible to tell the two artists apart. Debussy was followed by Stravinsky’s “Sonata for Two Pianos,” a 1944 opus that had its world premiere at Edgewood College. The first half closed with Lutoslawski’s knuckle-busting “Variations on a Theme of Paganini” (trust me, you know the Paganini theme, and if you’ve only heard Rachmaninoff’s ubiquitous treatment for piano and orchestra, you must sample the Lutoslawski).

The second half offered Poulenc’s 1953 “Sonata for Two Pianos,” a much longer work that, as Harbison promised, reveals a more introspective side of a composer frequently pigeonholed as a sassy diversion camouflaging a handful of serious and glorious moments. In truth, this work left one listener longing for a little more brevity, if not outright sass, but also served to allow one’s focus to squarely rest on the stunning collaboration between Levin and Chuang.

In terms of local interest, the best was last: Harbison’s “Diamond Watch: Double Play for Two Pianos.” Written just last year for an MIT colleague of that name who also adores baseball, the twelve brief, interconnected movements all borrow baseball terms—and give us the musical version of baseball’s “hidden ball” trick, as they disguise in variation form the fragments of a certain best-loved baseball tune. With his love and experience in jazz and Gershwin, Harbison’s piece gradually moves towards more relaxed and boisterous expressions, and the keyboard team of two fully relished the opportunities for a different kind of splashy virtuosity.

Saturday night’s all-Mozart program featured Levin the arranger, and soloist. First came a rarely heard choice of the Divertimento, K. 287 for Horns and Strings. Rose Mary Harbison tackled the first violin part (this was the last work Mozart wrote for himself as a solo violinist), with Whittaker Hill and Linda Kimball on horn, and the accompanying strings of Heidi Braun-Hill on violin, John Harbison on viola and Liz Foulser, bass. Here too was another reminder of the festival’s special charms: this was an ensemble of both local musicians and folks from the Boston area, where the Harbisons spend much of their time teaching and performing.

Then followed a Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano that never existed until now. A Mozart contemporary, Maximilian Stadler, had completed three disparate movements of Mozart’s that never made the cut, so to speak. But Levin has just done a new (and undoubtedly better) restoration—so much so that it is hard to imagine many others being able to detect where Mozart breaks off and Levin picked up the gleaming musical threads.

Just as Harbison had informed us that perhaps as much of a third of Mozart’s music exists in incomplete form (in addition to the over 600 finished works!), so too is more than half of the left hand part of the master’s penultimate piano concerto—and this in a work that the average music lover accepts as finished. In an arrangement for piano and five string players, Levin brought all of it to fresh, sparkling life. The only consolation as the last chord faded is that Levin has recorded his version of this “Coronation” Concerto, K. 537 with orchestra—and that two more programs of this year’s Festival remain. IF there are any tickets left, you can find them at tokencreekfestival.org.

Photo courtesy of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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