A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Sep 6, 2012
09:13 AM
Classically Speaking

Token Creek Chamber Music Festival Bridges Seasons and Centuries

Token Creek Chamber Music Festival Bridges Seasons and Centuries

Labor Day weekend is the traditional end to summer, and the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival has managed since 1989 to put a musical punctuation mark or two on that sense of changing seasons. On Sunday, the Festival’s closing program was titled “Outside In: Music About Place,” and directors John and Rose Mary Harbison cleverly blended old, nearly new and newly discovered into a concert that effortlessly transcended the walls of “the barn.”

That simple and endearing term refers of course to the comfortably rustic barn of Rose Mary’s family estate, cozily cornered east of Highway 51 and north of Token Creek County Park. The late afternoon affair opened with a pair of J.S. Bach arias written just months apart — but the second of which was discovered as recently as 2005.

Soprano Anna Slate delivered the “old” aria first, “Offne dich” from the Cantata No. 61. Accompanied by only cellist Karl Lavine and John Harbison on piano, the young singer quickly reacquainted us with the joy of hearing supple sounds in so intimate a setting. Let us be clear: Ms. Slate seems to be developing a voice of richness and power, but like dozens of Token Creek artists before her, she immediately took advantage of the rustic confines to exhibit several moments of delicate expression, which could prove risky —if not altogether lost — in a typical concert venue.

The 2005 discovery of “Alles mit Gott,” the second aria, was more than a curiosity. As Harbison pointed out in his relaxed and insightful comments before the music, this was originally a twelve-verse aria for the 52nd birthday of the Duke of Weimar. We were treated to three, which was plenty to savor the depth of expression that Bach lavished on even a rather formal assignment. After all, the subject was close to the composer’s heart, as the text was rooted in the Duke’s own motto: “All things with God, and nought without Him.” Harbison noted that the work, with its entreaties for divine blessings on nation and leaders, was particularly important at this time. To whatever degree the packed house agreed with him, it was clear that there was unanimous consensus on the artistic merits of Slate and the accompanying ensemble of strings and piano.

In 2004, Harbison penned a string sextet featuring essentially a solo violin part, titled “Crane Sightings.” Here Rose Mary took the lead and John a conductor’s perch, with the four movements evoking everything from a sense of “otherness” in the encounter of the majestic birds, along with their flight, as well as a slow movement titled from an Aldo Leopold quote (“The Sadness of Marshes”) and a finale of “Dance-Variations.”

The second half was given over to the Divertimento K. 334 of Mozart, an expansive six-movement work featuring two horns (a clue, said Harbison, as to the outdoorsy nature of the work). Linda Kimball and Whitacre Hill provided the bucolic touches, with Rose Mary Harbison and Heidi Braun-Hill on violin, John Harbison on viola and Elizabeth Foulser on bass.

If one must bid goodbye to a summer season, there are few sweeter ways to do it than on a Sunday afternoon on a green cusp of Madison, and even the opening of the indoor season in less than three weeks will not fully obscure the memories of another treasured tradition.

Photo: "The barn" at Token Creek Festival, by Tom Artin.

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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
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