The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The 29th Token Creek Festival closes with the world premiere of a song cycle by John Harbison and dramatic, affecting Schumann | September 6, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The third and final program of this summer’s 29th Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, held in a refurbished barn (below) was given on last Saturday afternoon, when I caught it, and then was repeated the following day.

There were adjustments down to the wire, as co-director John Harbison noted in his opening comments. The originally planned opening piece, Mozart’s Sonata in G Major, K. 301, for Violin and Piano, was cancelled, and the program actually began with Haydn’s Piano Sonata in E Major (H. XVI:22).

Harbison (below) played this himself, having observed that, if not noteworthy, it was representative of its kind. In fact, it is a worthy work, its third and final movement is a little set of delightful variations on a minuet tune. Harbison obviously loves this whole Haydn literature, and he played the piece with affection.

Then it was vocal music, sung by tenor Frank Kelley — who has worked with Harbison in the Emmanuel Music activities in Boston — with pianist Janice Weber.

Their first offering was the world premiere of a cycle-in-progress by Harbison, titled In Early Evening, to texts by poet Louise Glück (below): specifically, of its first three songs. The texts are dreamy and nostalgic, and the composer has attempted to capture their multi-layered implications.

The two performers (below) then completed the concert’s first half with a presentation of the complete 16 songs of the cycle Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love) by Robert Schumann. This sets the reflections on failed love, written by the great German poet Heinrich Heine.

Kelley is not an ingratiating singer. His voice sounds raw and worn. Nevertheless, he has splendid diction, in both English and German. He sounded much more confident and secure in the magnificent Schumann cycle, which he sang without a score. In this music he conveyed the varying moods and emotions with genuine engagement and expression.

But pianist Janice Weber (below) proved a real discovery. In his program notes, Harbison rightly pointed out that Schumann’s piano writing was not so much accompaniment as individualized piano writing with its own character and even independence. Indeed, the final song of the Heine cycle ends, after the voice is finished, with a substantial little epilogue of reflection for the piano alone.

Weber projected that very strong piano dimension wonderfully, and she repeated the feat when, for the program’s second half, she was joined in Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 63, by violinist and Festival co-founder Rose Mary Harbison and cellist Karl Lavine.

This is a lively and quintessentially Schumanesque work that the audience loved. (You can hear the energetic first movement, played by the Beaux Arts Trio, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I found the ensemble not well balanced. Lavine was surprisingly mild, deferential and understated in his playing. But Weber provided the sturdy backbone of the performance. We should hear more of this splendid artist.

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  1. Far better than Die Schöpfung (“The Creation”) by Haydn:

    1. R. Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Opus 30;

    2. A. Hovhaness, Symphony #50, “Mt. St. Helens” (although not specifically about creation of the universe this is about creation of mountains. Hovhaness saw mountains as the way to the Godhead. He captures the power and awe of creation.

    3. A. Hovhaness, “Vishnu” Symphony, No. 19, billions and billions times better than Haydn as attested by Carl Sagan who used this music for his “Cosmos” series;

    4. G. Holst, The Planets (again, great at showing elemental forces at work).

    5. A. Pärt, Stabat Mater for Choir & String Orchestra. Not specifically about the creation, but ethereal as all of this composer’s works are.

    6. P. Vasks, “Plainscapes,” Not about the creation, per se, but ethereal.

    7. Ola Gjeilo: “THE SPHERES” Sounds like it was written to describe heaven.

    8. G. Fauré , Requiem Mass. Not about creation but about death and resurrection. In my opinion, the best of all such works.

    9. Vangelis, Comet 16. Music also used by Carl Sagan in Cosmos.

    10, Vangelis,
    Entends-tu Les Chiens Aboyer? Music used by Carl Sagan in Cosmos.

    11.Ola Gjeilo, “Sunrise Mass” Sunrise movement. You can feel the earth in this music and the sun.


    Comment by fflambeau — September 6, 2018 @ 5:00 am

    • Also on my list:

      12. Mortin Lauridson, Lux Æterna.


      Comment by fflambeau — September 6, 2018 @ 5:10 am

  2. Is anything by Haydn “noteworthy”?

    I have heard his so-called masterpiece, “The Creation”, performed live in Dresden’s cathedral. Most of the audience went to sleep during the performance. Rather than creating anything, Haydn’s God seemed to be off playing golf.

    I find Haydn’s music to be repetitive, derivative, and usually of a lower quality from the people he copied from (and no, he was not the father of the string quartet, he wasn’t Beethoven’s most important teacher ((Beethoven once said of him, “I learned nothing from Haydn”)); he wasn’t even “Papa” Haydn.


    Comment by fflambeau — September 6, 2018 @ 2:47 am

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