The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical Music Q&A: Composer John Harbison talks about the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival for 2011, which opens this Wednesday night. Part 1 of 2.

August 23, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

American composer John Harbison (below, in a photo by Tom Artin) has won just about every honor a composer can win, including the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” His resume and future schedule are filled with commissions by major organizations from the Metropolitan Opera to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and numerous other smaller ensembles here abroad.

But every summer for more than 20 years, Harbison leaves his home in Cambridge, Mass., where he teaches at MIT, and returns to a rural farmhouse and barn near Madison, Wisconsin. There, with his wife violinist Rose Mary Harbison (below), he composes and co-directs and performs in the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, which begins this week.

This festival is one of the most intriguing and incisive classical music events nationwide. I suspect that, on a smaller scale, it uses the kind of didactic or exploratory focus that has made the Bard College summer festivals, devoted to a single, often underrated composer, so well revered. That is, Token Creek usually has a major point or two to make about the composer and music, even as it offers outstanding performances of that outstanding music.

This year’s festival is no exception, and it is dedicated to the recently deceased master violin maker and retired UW-Madison physics professor Jack Fry (below, with a link to his obituary) – who made several of the string instruments that will be used during the festival.

The festival begins tomorrow, Wednesday, Aug. 24, and ends Sunday, Sept. 4, with all concerts held in the beautifully refurbished barn (below) in DeForest.

In between will come two performances (Wednesday and Thursday nights, Aug. 24 and 25, at 8 p.m.) by Robert Levin and his wife Ya-Fei Chuang (below) of music for two pianos, including Debussy’s “En blanc et noir,” Poulenc’s Sonata, Witold Lutoslawski’s “Paganini” Variations,” the Midwest premiere of Harbison’s “Diamond Watch” and the Sonata by Stravinsky that was given its world premiere, with the composer and famed teacher Nadia Boulanger at the keyboards, at Edgewood College in Madison.

That will be followed by two performances (Saturday night, Aug. 27, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon. Aug. 28, at 4 p.m.) of an exploration of Mozart that includes a chamber version of the “Coronation” Piano Concerto; a little heard Divertimento for violin and strings; and a reconstruction of an unfinished piano trio by Harvard scholar and performer Robert Levin.

On Wednesday, Aug. 31, and Thursday, Sept. 1, there will also be four seatings (5 and 8:30 p.m. each night) of the ever-popular jazz cabaret, which this years marks the centennials of Burton Lane and Jule Styne. Longtime jazz fan Harbison will play with others, including his longtime friend, trombonist Tom Artin (below), whose performing with Harbison dates back to the childhood some 60 years ago.

And the festival will wrap up with two performances (Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m.) of an all-J.S. Bach program that features the return of musicians and Bach specialists – including soprano Kendra Colton and oboist Peggy Pearson — from the acclaimed Emmanuel Music of Boston ensemble in vocal and instrumental music, including the famous Cantata No. 199 (“My Heart Swims in Blood”).

For more information about all the concerts, dates and times, programs, tickets availability, direction and photos, visit:

Harbison, who points to complete sequences or series of works that were started in previous years, recently gave an interview, conducted by telephone and then transcribed and edited for print, to The Ear. It will be posted in two parts over two days:

ON THE FESTIVAL OVERALL: “I think this really will be a fine festival. We’re looking forward it a lot. We’re selling tickets pretty well, and, as usual, we have a group of people we’ve had with us before and also some very close colleagues who will be here for the first time.

“For us, it’s a pleasure to be putting on this music but also to get together with people we love to perform with. I gave my first concert with Tom Artin, the jazz trombone player, when I was 11 years old in Princeton, New Jersey.

“These days all arts organizations have to be aware that it’s not so easy to put these things together. We would love to drop our prices and have everybody be able to afford it. Beethoven said that there should e a store where everybody van just go and take what they want.

“I think we’re very glad to be able to keep it going at this point and to see many people who come back each year. That’s always very heartening. We learn about the music as we do it. So much of what I get up on stage and say about the music has been worked out among us as we are preparing the music. That’s the kick for us of doing this.”

ON MUSIC FOR TWO PIANOS:  Bob Levin and his wife Ya-Fei Chuang (below) will repeat a performance of a concert a year ago of theme-and-variations for two pianos. They include Harbison’s own work “Diamond Watch” that he wrote for a Nobel Prize-winning economist and colleague at MIT, and which was written to be performed by Levin and his wife.

Says Harbison: “The challenge of writing for two pianos is that paradoxically it is a very good kind of piece if don’t want to depend on an instrument. If you are sitting there by yourself at one piano, you can’t hear it So I wrote the piece almost entirely away from an instrument, You just have to imagine the sound of two pianos without producing it.

“The uses of theme-and-variations are the central problem of playing jazz and improvisations, and were central to composers of Bach’s time. The idea is that the central kernel or idea has very widespread set of applications. It’s also how people are built and think. Just of these are stricter rather than more fluid forms of variations.

“The program turns out to have a French angle, which is good since Bob Levin studied in France with Nadia Boulanger (below).  The world premiere took place at Edgewood College with the pianists being Boulanger and a guy named Stravinsky as the pianist. Stravinsky’s Elegy for Viola was also given a world premiere by Pro Arte Quartet violist Germain Prevost. It was a big event for Madison.”

Tomorrow: Part 2 – John Harbison on Mozart and Bach

Posted in Classical music

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