A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Aug 30, 2013
09:09 AM
Classically Speaking

A Little Stratford-on-Token, Spoken and Sung

A Little Stratford-on-Token, Spoken and Sung

Token Creek Chamber Music Festival

John and Rose Mary Harbison

Due to my excursion to Door County last week, with its immersion into the Peninsula Music Festival, I missed the first two programs of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival. As other local critics have mentioned, scheduling conflicts in the arts, rife throughout the other seasons in Madison, no longer take summers off.

Happily, I was back in time to soak up one of the most ingeniously constructed and carefully planned programs in recent memory.

In his opening remarks, Festival co-founder John Harbison stated that “Shakespeare: The Bard in Songs & Scenes” was the “most experimental and most researched” of any offering in the nearly quarter-century of the TCCMF. It would have been enough to have heard what amounted to a twenty-four-song recital, spanning styles from Shakespeare’s own time to our own. Add in monologues from the plays where the song texts originated, and the fascinating improvisations of violinist Andrew Waggoner and cellist Caroline Stinson, and it became a multi-discipline event that illuminated both Bard and composer.

The evening at the beloved Barn, the family site of Rose Mary Harbison, opened with what had been the night before a world premiere of John Harbison’s “Invention on a Theme by Shakespeare.” An ensemble of five string players set the stage, as it were, led by Stinson’s uncanny ability to imbue a single sustained note (and unisons played on separate strings) with layers of meaning.

The rest of the program was organized into integrated sets of songs inspired by a particular play, with a monologue from each stage work interspersed or following the songs. The actor was Allison Schaffer, a Madison native whose training has included a stint of study and performance at the Globe Theater in London. Her scenes were accompanied improvisationally by Waggoner and Stinson, two members of the group Open End. Pianist Molly Morkoski, also a member of that renowned improvisational/new music ensemble, was on this occasion focused on the printed page, as she partnered with soprano Mary Mackenzie in the songs.

The opening group was based on As You Like It, with the only song contemporaneous to Shakespeare, Thomas Morley’s “It Was a Lover and His Lass.” Then came a recurring pattern of the night: two settings of “Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind,” the first from Thomas Arne, the early 18th-century composer, the second by the 20th-century Frank Bridge. Schaffer ended with Phoebe’s “I would not be thy executioner,” from Act III, Scene 5.

In the course of the evening, Schaffer offered Gertrude (one occasion in which her youth did not serve her well), Imogen from Cymbeline, Portia from The Merchant of Venice, and a wonderful Prospero (“You do look, my son").

On one occasion, two small groups were combined, with Schaffer offering Othello’s Emilia “But I do think it is their husbands’ faults,” and then with just a short break, turning back to the audience for Hermione’s (A Winter’s Tale) “Sir, spare your threats.” These were followed by John Ireland’s “When Daffodils Begin to Peer,” and a true rarity, one of Haydn’s only English settings, “She Never Told Her Love.”

It would have been worth the price of admission just to hear the multi-colored voice of Mackenzie, sensitively accompanied by Morkoski, in works that also included Brahms and Richard Strauss in songs based on Ophelia’s lyrics before her suicide (who knew there was such a rich German tradition for Shakespeare?), Schubert and Poulenc, and yes, a song from a youthful John Harbison (“unearthed” after forty-five years, he said).

Perhaps the most fascinating group was the penultimate, based on The Tempest: double settings of “Come Unto These Yellow Sands,” “Full Fathom Five,” and “Where the Bee Sucks.” In the first threesome, the opening two songs were by Purcell and the last by Pelham Humfrey; the second trio of lyrics were settings by Michael Tippett; Schaffer’s Prospero divided the sets.

The only surprise was that a few seats were left empty; perhaps a few loyal fans were vacationing out of town. The Festival concludes Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. with “The Old and Unfamiliar.” This intriguing program features completions of unfinished works by Mozart, complete by Harbison and Robert Levin, along with the world premiere of Harbison’s Sonata No. 2 for Violin, with other unique treats.

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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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