The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Token Creek Festival closes with an unforgettable all-Bach concert

September 7, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Was it the last concert of summer? Or the first concert of fall?

However describe it, call it unforgettable. The final concert of this year’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival – performed Saturday night and Sunday afternoon – was outstanding and proved one of the best of the festival.

It was a perfect example of how this intimate festival has over two decades developed its own formula of combining unusual and well-known works, finding and importing terrific guest artists, hiring the best local talent, and mixing words and music to make for a satisfying experience. Some other groups would be wise to take their cues from Token Creek.

This time it was an all-J.S. Bach program that emphasized guest artists from Emmanuel Music of Boston and some unusual works in a fine listener-friendly format.

The program opened, as usual, with insightful remarks from composer and festival co-director John Harbison about the role of Bach and Emmanuel Music.

Then it was on to four lovely soprano arias (from Cantatas 98, 171, 93 and 58) sung by Emmanuel Music soprano Kendra Colton (below, all  photos are mine).

Colton’s is not the purest or loveliest voice you will hear. But in its darker timbre it is a perfect instrument for these cantatas.

Her voice, like the music itself,  is about serious, no-nonsense matters of life and death. These arias are not some bel canto vehicle filled with embellishments where you wonder at the agility and lightness of the human voice. They were arias to be sung in church to convince listeners into believe. If they were lovely to listen to -– and they were –- then so much the better. But beauty was never the main point, then or now.

Equally songful was Emmanuel Music oboist Peggy Pearson (below), who played with a lyricism, tone and long line in phrasing that were astonishing. After performing in the the arias, she and violinist Rose Mary Harbison – the other co-director of the festival – teamed up for the reconstructed version of Bach’s Concerto Oboe and Violin in C Minor, BWV 1060.

It was the most familiar work on the program and it was filled with fine moments. I especially single out the songful duet of the slow middle movement that recalled the gorgeous Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor.

I also single out the vivacious finale, where Rose Mary Harbison’s toe-tapping gave away to rhythmic verve of the music. Back and forth the two played, like a grand and zesty Two-Part Invention. When it ended, cheers erupted from the overly full house of some 120. To the pleasure of all, the duet duel ended in a victorious draw for the listener.

After intermission, three chorale preludes for organ (including Bach’s last one he worked on when he was blind) were rearranged in a setting for two violas (the versatile John Harbison on one viola), a cello, a bass and an oboe. Bach constantly stole from himself and transcribed his and others’ works, so this was in keeping the The Master.

And what a terrific way it proved to hear unfamiliar music. It reminded one of chamber orchestra versions of the “The Art of Fugue” and some one the string quartet arrangements Mozart made of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.”

Finally, and, it seemed inevitably, came an entire cantata (No. 84) with soprano Colton singing two arias and two recitatives with a chorale, formed by the small band of instrumentalists, including John Harbison on the beautifully hard-carved harmonium organ (below) built in 2004 by Vermont maker A. David Moore from various woods on his own farm.

It was moving, indispensable and lovely music performed persuasively and with conviction. It was everything you look for in Bach, which remains a speciality of both Emmanuel Music and the Token Creek festival.

Hearing this concert, you immediately knew why.

Did you hear the all-Bach concert at Token Creek?

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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