The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival provides a thought-provoking and ear-delighting look into the intersection of Shakespeare’s plays and classical music.

August 29, 2013
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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 every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival has long-established a reputation for unusual programming, combining seemingly distinct genres, and exploring rare or unconventional material within them.

This season, the Festival seems to have become even more adventurous. There is the usual balancing of jazz and classical music, with more investigation of improvisatory techniques. The tiptoe into Shakespeare (below) made last year has this time has been expanded into a full and quite adventurous program, called “Shakespeare: The Bard in Songs and Scenes.”

shakespeare

The program opened with the premiere of a new composition by John Harbison (below), the co-director of the Festival who is also an award-winning composer. Called “Invention on a Theme by Shakespeare,” it takes as its “theme” a sequence of six solmization pitches (notes in a scale that are equated to syllables)  talked of by a comic character in “Love’s Labours Lost — a piece of music by the poet, if you will.  Written for solo cello with string quartet, it begins with a long solo monologue and then develops into a sequence of more animated ensemble episodes.

Thereafter, the program developed into a series of nine sets, each built around one of the plays.  In each case, a passage from the given play was recited by actor Allison Schaffer, while the songs around it were sung by soprano Mary Mackenzie), with pianist Molly Morkoski (below) accompanying stylishly.

molly morkoski

The pattern worked very well, with song composers ranging from Thomas Morley, a contemporary and friend of Shakespeare, to John Harbison himself, our contemporary and friend.

What was most engaging was the frequent pairing of settings by different composers of the same texts. This practice was brought to a peak by the presentation of three of the song texts from “The Tempest,” first as set by Henry Purcell (2) and Pelham Humfrey (1), and then all by Michael Tippett. It provided fascinating insights into the varied possibilities and aesthetics of musical word treatment.

For me, though, at least as fascinating was the unit devoted to “Hamlet,” and to the sad character Ophelia. Framing Queen Gertrude’s famous description of Ophelia’s death were two complete song cycles, each setting the words of the demented songs that the poor girl sings in her madness.

One cycle, using five of those song cycles was a rarely heard and posthumously published set by Johannes Brahms (below top). The other, using only three of the texts, was a set published as his Op. 67 by Richard Strauss (below bottom).  (And not by Johann Strauss, as the program erroneously claimed, and as carefully corrected by Harbison in his astute spoken commentary.)

brahms3

richard strauss

These texts were set by each composer in German translations, which itself highlighted the Bard’s important cultural outreach beyond the English language.  (And that point was furthered by inclusion of two Shakespeare songs by Schubert, in German; as well as one by Haydn, if in English.) The Brahms settings were in a direct and rather simple style, perhaps reflecting his extensive activity in treating German folksong.

By contrast, Strauss used them to venture into almost experimental writing, in treatments that emphasized dramatic and powerfully tragic sensibilities. I wondered when anyone else would have the enterprise to put these two cycles together for comparison.

It was a measure of their total commitment that both actress and singer delivered their work totally from memory.

Allison Schaffer (below) is just beginning a career in theater, but she demonstrates a firm sense of textual integrity, vocal clarity, and stage instincts.  She will be a local product to watch for.

Allison Schaffer

Mary Mackenzie (below) has a full, ripe soprano voice of great power and beauty. She put it to use, with effective utilization of facial expression, body movement, and even gestures, to make each song an individual piece, with its own distinct mood.  This is a superb artist of whom I want to hear more.

Mackenzie

The usual printed program was supplemented this time by a set of notes by Harbison himself, giving a concise and helpful roadmap through the plays and the selections offered.

There was, alas, one fly in the ointment. Each of the spoken selections was “accompanied” by improvisations for violin and cello devised by guest composer and violinist Andrew Waggoner (below).

Everyone I spoke to afterwards agreed with me that these improvisations were intrusive, distracting, and often downright unpleasant–certainly a serious injustice to Ms. Schaffer’s work.  I know that Harbison himself is most interested in the art of improvisation, and it deserves its space; but this was not the space into which to impose it.

Andrew WaggonerThat was the one miscalculation in an otherwise splendidly artistic and thought-provoking presentation.

The Festival concludes on this Saturday, Aug. 31, at 8 p.m. and on Sunday, Sept. 1, at 4 p.m. with a program called ‘The Old and the Unfamiliar,” which features unfinished Mozart works completed by Harvard University scholar and pianist Robert Levin and by festival co-director and composer John Harbison. As always, it will take place in “The Barn” (below) off Highway 19.

For more information and tickets, call (608) 241-2525 or visit: http://tokencreekfestival.org

TokenCreekbarn interior


Classical music Q&A: Composer and violinist Andrew Waggoner talks about the importance of improvisation and his upcoming concerts at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival on Sunday, and then next Tuesday and Wednesday.

August 21, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

You might think of it as a form of musical archaeology: Recovering, reclaiming and exhibiting the time-honored tradition of improvisation that for centuries was essential to composers and performers alike.

Improvisations on a Theme” is a watchword that shapes the programs of the 2013 Token Creek Chamber Music Festival. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the concert presented by guest ensemble from New York, Open End (below), three of whose members will be in residence for a week at this summer’s festival.

Open End Ensemble BW

Essential to the Open End mission is the reclaiming of improvisation as the central skill of all musicians. Audiences at Open End concerts come to think of spontaneous creation as being part of a natural, ongoing dialogue between performers creating in the moment and a written body of work that continues to expand, to transform.

At home in venues from galleries and living rooms to concert halls, Open End seeks nothing less than to engage audiences in an experience that is wonderful, intimate, challenging and beautiful.

On this coming Sunday, August 25, at 4 p.m. Open End members Andrew Waggoner (violin), Caroline Stinson, (cello), and Molly Morkoski (piano) will present a program of recent works and improvisations in a program including music of Charles Ives, Henry Cowell (below), Anna Weesner, Andrew Waggoner, and Bach, concluding with the premiere of a new work by Waggoner.

henry cowell

Waggoner has been characterized by The New Yorker magazine as “the gifted practitioner of a complex but dramatic and vividly colored style” His new piano quintet, inspired by the acclaimed Canadian short story writer Alice Munro, was written this summer for the 2013 Token Creek Festival and is dedicated to Co-Artistic Directors John and Rose Mary Harbison.

Then at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, August 27, and Wednesday, August 28, the Open End members will also participate in one of the Festival’s program of Shakespeare in scenes and songs. The program opens with the premiere of John Harbison’s “Invention on a Theme of Shakespeare” for solo cello and small ensemble, followed by scenes from Shakespeare plays accompanied by new incidental music, and songs and arias on texts from the same plays set by to music by composers from the Renaissance to the present day.

Songs will be offered by composers including Morley, Arne, and Henry Purcell; Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Hugo Wolf; and Francis Poulenc, Frank Bridge, Michael Tippett and John Harbison.

Shakespeare color

All performances take place at the Festival Barn (below), on Highway 19 near the hamlet of Token Creek, with ample parking available. The venue, indoors and air-conditioned, is invitingly small, and early reservations are recommended. 

TokenCreekbarn interior

Concert tickets ($30, and $10 for students) may be reserved by phone at 608-241-2525, by email at info@tokencreekfestival.org, or by U.S. mail at P.O. Box 55142, Madison WI, 53705.

More information about the Token Creek Festival can be found at the website, www.tokencreekfestival.org

Violinist-composer Andrew Waggoner (below) recently granted an email interview to The Ear:

Andrew Waggoner

Could you briefly introduce yourself and your work to people who don’t know you or haven’t heard about you?

I think the best way for people to approach me and my music is to know going into it is that the two paramount values for me in any musical exchange are strangeness and beauty.

I say “strangeness” because the most arresting, durable encounters we have with creative work are marked by a level of confusion, or of the numinous, of something that immediately strikes us as “other,” but that, hopefully, the work itself gives us the tools to sort out over the course of the experience.

“Beauty” is perhaps a little more self-evident, but it can manifest in myriad ways, of course, including beauty of form, of shape or dramatic arc. Much of the music I love most (J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Duke Ellington (below), Miles Davis, Harbison (really!), Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez) moves me at the level of the big shape as much as at that of surface sensuality.

That said, sensuality is hugely important to me, and when I feel I’ve found a unity of shape and surface beauty that makes a listener want to stay with a piece long enough to figure out where its strangeness is coming from and what it means, I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot. This doesn’t happen all the time, of course.

Duke Ellington at piano

What are the guiding principles – improvisation — and the performance goals behind the Open End Ensemble? How do they reflect your opinion of the state of contemporary classical music today?

The thing we most wanted with Open End was to have a group that played like a group — always the same players — and that could move easily between written-out music and free improvisation and not miss a beat.

We wanted the audience to hear the improvisations as pieces, and to hear the pieces as having the same level of listening and spontaneous response as the improvs. We make an issue of improv, in part, in order to get the audience to the point where they no longer hear it as unusual.

With regard to the state of things today, I’d just say that the only criterion we bring to programming a piece is whether or not we like it. If we believe in it, we play it. We have the luxury of not taking things on for any purpose other than what we want a program to sound like, how we want it to move, to flow.

If there are specific contemporary currents that seem not to flow through our programs, it’s most likely because we’re not interested in them.

What would you like the general public to know about your performances and specific programs (Ives, Cowell, Weesner, Waggoner’ world premiere and Bach; also Harbison’s Shakespeare music) and works at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival?

We like programs that mix contemporary works with 20th-century classics, along with different instrumental combinations that provide relief and perspective on each other.

In this way we’re no different from anyone else, it must be said, except that, again, there are no “isms” guiding our programming, so we can be very free about the kinds of combinations we find.

So the works by Charles Ives and Henry Cowell make a natural pair (culturally and temperamentally, and in their dogged sense of exploration), and they provide a nice come-down from the energy of the work by Anna Weesner (below), which is volcanic.

anna weesner

The improvs will work in some way yet to be discovered to bridge these different expressive worlds, with John and Rosie’s Bach offering both a stylistic distance and expressive weight specific to it — though listeners will recognize Cowell’s affectionate nod to Bach in his little pieces, so to some degree we go in widening gyres here.

The premiere of my own work, “Floating Bridge,” is a very personal homage to John and Rosie, to John and my (and Carrie’s) shared love of the award-wining Canadian short story writer Alice Munro, to the festival’s rural setting, and to Ellen Singer, a dear friend at our own rural festival, Weekend of Chamber Music, whom we lost this past spring. All these threads were evoked for me and somehow float together in Munro’s story, also called “Floating Bridge.”

The Shakespeare program will mash-up an astonishingly diverse group of Shakespeare songs with dramatic monologues, acted by Madison native Allison Shaffer (below), with Carrie and me improvising, joined by John at the piano. We’ve done this kind of thing a lot, and we love it. We have no idea how the musical environment for the texts will take shape. We’ll find that in the moment.

Allison Schaffer

How would you characterize the style and interest of your own compositions and particularly the work that you will premiere here in Madison?

My own work, as I mentioned earlier, hopefully offers the listener something strange and compelling that is made comprehensible through a surface that is beautiful, and often sensual.

One person’s beauty is another’s caterwauling, of course, so not everyone will hear this music in the same way I do. But I am working to make the music as powerful and communicative as possible, not by trying to anticipate everyone’s varied tastes and levels of musical experience, but simply by responding to my own work as a listener.

The old modernist dichotomy of composer vs. listener bores me, in part because it always was mostly, and has now become entirely, meaningless, and because it overlooks the obvious fact that composers are listeners too.

So that’s where I start with any piece: what do I want to hear, where do I want to go with this, how do I want this to make me feel? I can only really respond to those questions as a listener, as someone who will hear the piece in performance and judge it in those terms, not as the product of a wonderfully complex compositional process.

In terms of style, the composers referenced above have all had a profound effect on me. To that list, I’d add Copland and Messiaen; if one morphs all of those different characters (Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Copland, Messiaen, Miles Davis, Carter, Boulez, Harbison (below)) one might actually come up with something like Waggoner!

JohnHarbisonatpiano

What else would you like to say about yourself and the ensemble, about your programs and work, and about the festival?

We’re crazy excited to come out to Token Creek. For us it’s both an extension of our relationships to John and Rosie Harbison (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot)and to John’s music, and an expression of how we most love to work as a group: in intimate, imaginative settings, close to the audience, able to work with the energy they give us, to shape an experience that is site-specific. For us it’s really the ideal, and we get to do only a few times a year under very special circumstances. So this is a rare privilege.

John and Rose Mary Harbison Katrin Talbot


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