A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Sep 6, 2011
01:27 PM
Classically Speaking

Token Creek Festival, Chapter 2: Two Worlds Apart

Token Creek Festival, Chapter 2: Two Worlds Apart

From their website to the front of their programs, the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival advertises itself as “a world apart.” But in auditing the final two programs of their 22nd season, John and Rose Mary Harbison and friends proved once again that they are equally excellent and comfortable in the disparate worlds of mid-twentieth century jazz and that central pillar of Western music, J.S. Bach.

Incorporating a jazz program is one of the newer traditions of the TCCMF, but while its first appearance goes back at least a few years, for co-artistic directors John and Rose Mary Harbison, it has been a lifelong avocation. Trombonist Tom Artin was among the sextet that rippled and swung for two performances each last Wednesday and Thursday, but he and John Harbison first played together in 1949—yes, they were in something like the third grade!

The other collaborators were no strangers to the Token Creek Barn either: Rose Mary Harbison on violin, John Schaffer on bass, Todd Steward on drums and vocalist Nicole Pasternak. As heard at the later performance on Wednesday, the six offered two substantial sets devoted to single composers: Burton Lane and Jule Styne.

The Lane set featured seven songs written from 1938 to 1951 with four different lyricists, the most prominent being three with Frank Loesser. The first two were purely instrumental, and one was immediately reminded that Harbison’s piano playing has a lot in common with the personality he exhibits in his informal insights before every half of festival programs: conversational, subtly erudite without being stuffy, slyly humorous and sophisticated in the best sense of the word.

Rose Mary Harbison revealed that if she lacks the full measure of sparkle and grace in the classicism of Mozart, she brings to jazz a full palette of earthy colors and a strong hint on more than occasion of the great violinist, Stephane Grappelli. Artin is as smooth and beguiling a jazz trombonist as one is likely to encounter, while Schaffer—a longtime member of UW–Madison who recently completed fifteen years as chair of the School of Music—proved with his bass that the old saw about “those who can’t, teach” might not be true in every case. Steward is a consummate master of brushes, and knows how to really kick something into swinging without dominating the ensemble.

“Too Late Now” provided a fine vehicle for Pasternak to display her strengths: she never forces in the upper range, but delights even more with unexpected descents into a dusky lower range. The second half, given over entirely to seven songs that Styne wrote with Sammy Cahn mostly during the war years (1942–48), may have seemed the stronger given the unity of the material. Again, Pasternak and all the others plumbed emotional depths (“I’m Glad I Waited for You”) and scintillating, if understated, sass (“It’s Been a Long, Long Time”).

The closing program of the season reunited two powerful soloists from last summer, oboist Peggy Pearson and soprano Kendra Colton, for an all-Bach event. While the first half may have seemed disparate in its individual selections, John Harbison once again revealed the not-so-obvious threads to discern in the Sonata, BWV 1030 (Mr. and Mrs. Harbsion on modern piano and violin), four cantata arias from relatively early and much later in Bach’s output, and the Trio Sonata, BWV 525 with Pearson, both Harbisons and Karl Lavine on cello.

The second half consisted of three of the Chorale Preludes arranged for oboe, violin, two violas, cello and bass. These, as they were last year, were a true revelation: removed from the original organ setting, the writing is at once clearer and made ever more expressive by Pearson’s uniquely dark oboe timbre.

The major work of the evening was the Cantata, BWV 199 (“My Heart Swims in Blood”), rightly described by Harbison as the “most violent and direct” of all the 200+ cantata texts Bach set. Colton was piercing in her intensity, conveying the all-consuming desire for repentance that comprises most of the work, and no less convincing in the final aria where forgiveness is found. The accompanying ensemble of seven players was rich and multi-layered in their contributions. All modern instruments were used—yes, the piano too—and again I assert that, for all the substantial contributions we have been taught by the authentic period movement in the last half century, I still find most satisfying a modern instrument approach informed by the lessons of those fervent scholars.

As always, the bigger than life festival in the little barn on the edge of Madison has come and gone too quickly … but this year’s silver lining is an earlier than usual opening to the Madison Symphony season on September 16. See you there …

Photo of jazz vocalist Nicole Pasternak by Jonathan Sloane.

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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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