ALERTS: The Ear wasn’t able to attend the opening concert last weekend of the 25th annual Token Creek Chamber Music Festival in the refurbished barn (below). But here are reviews by two local critics who did.
Here is a review by John W. Barker for Isthmus:
Here is a review by Greg Hettmansberger for the Classically Speaking blog of Madison Magazine:
By Jacob Stockinger
As usually happens at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, the concert of the second program on Wednesday night was a collaborative effort in exploration.
In this case, three key players participated: returning guest pianist Judith Gordon, who is now a professor at Smith College; Pulitzer Prize-winner and MacArthur Foundation “genius” award-winning composer, MIT teacher and co-artistic director John Harbison, who never fails to illuminate the music with his insightful brief commentaries; and co-artistic director and violinist Rose Mary Harbison, who programmed part of the concert as well as performed.
Rose Mary Harbison (below) also played the famous “Spring” Sonata for violin and piano, which John Harbison said pointed to how Ludwig van Beethoven — who aimed for the epic rather than the miniature — checked out the achievements of contemporaries and then figured out his own way to enter the mainstream.
Rose Mary Harbison also partnered with Gordon in a theme-and-variations piece by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, a piece The Ear found a little bit charming and a lot underwhelming.
In the very capable hands of Judith Gordon (below), those two composers proved to be the axis of the program and a fascinating coupling.
The two composers, one Baroque and the other Romantic, were chosen because they both focused on smaller-scale works. Exiled from his native Italy and isolated in courts in Portugal and Spain, Scarlatti (below) wrote 550 keyboard sonatas of astonishing variety, color and virtuosity.
Chopin (below), on the other hand, turned inward in the bustling artistic scene and intellectual ferment of Paris, and focused on smaller forms -– none smaller than the Preludes played at Token Creek. They seem a kind of Rosetta Stone for deconstructing and understanding the structure of the rest of Chopin’s output; or perhaps they are like a Table of Contents, abbreviated guides to, or outlines or preparatory sketches of, so many other works.
But in both cases, as John Harbison explained clearly, the two composers narrowed down their ambitions to achieve the kind of unique and idiosyncratic achievements or originality that many other composers can only dream of achieving. They were like poets who find freedom in the formal confines of the sonnet form.
John Harbison picked two pairs of Scarlatti sonatas for Gordon to perform: one early pair in E major (one is the famous calling card of Vladimir Horowitz in a YouTube video at the bottom) to show Scarlatti at his compositional planning phase with pretty regular development; and two late ones in F-Sharp minor to show how later in life Scarlatti increasingly sounded as if he made things up as he went along.
For her part, Rose Mary Harbison selected two sets of six preludes each by Chopin -– he wrote 24 as a set, then added a posthumously published one –- to demonstrate much the same effect: the contrary moods and Chopin’s extraordinary gift for compression and brevity, for his ability to make a 30-second piece sound complete or whole, as if it has a beginning, middle and end. (At the bottom is a YouTube performance of one of the loveliest preludes on the program, the mini-Nocturne in F-Sharp Major, in a live performance by Maurizio Pollini.)
The compare-and-contrast strategy worked very well, as was demonstrated not only in performance but also in a Q&A-type interview (below) that Judith Gordon did with John Harbison.
The Ear will long remember the unusual coupling, which is often the way Token Creek goes about programming unexpected matches, for the insight they shed on both composers, whose works, as it happens, I myself like to play on the piano.
It also tells us what to look for and to value at Token Creek: Unusual and unexpected approaches that yield unforgettable results.
Two more performances remain in this summer’s season, on Saturday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., and they will feature the pianist husband-and-wife team of Harvard Professor Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang performing music by Franz Schubert, C.P.E. Bach and Maurice Ravel as well as Rose Mary Harbison in the knockout Violin Sonata by Claude Debussy, his last work and one of his best.
Here is a link for more information and tickets:
This year the festival is celebrating both its own 25th anniversary and the 300th anniversary of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (below).
To history, the C.P.E. Bach anniversary no doubt matters more.
To my ears, however, the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival anniversary matters more.
And despite C.P.E. Bach, whose music will by and large remain on my record shelf and not in my CD player, the night belonged to Domenico Scarlatti and Frederic Chopin.
It is not easy to shed new light on old masterpieces, but that is exactly what the Harbisons and Judith Gordon managed to do.
What can one say but: Thank You!