Haydn's trios for violin, cello and piano are a long-term focus of Token Creek attention.
This year's Token Creek Chamber Music Festival (through Aug. 31 in the festival barn in DeForest) celebrates the operation's 25th anniversary, no mean achievement for so idiosyncratic an undertaking. This time around, there are three classical programs, two of them performed twice. The next program, involving only violin and piano, will be presented on Aug. 27.
The opener, on Saturday, was presided over by co-director, pianist and distinguished composer John Harbison, with his usual wry humor. He made clear there would be more talking than in the past, not only in his comments on the musical selections but also in exchanges with the participants.
The program opened with four out of the six movements of Bach's Partita No. 3 for unaccompanied violin. Rose Mary Harbison discussed the music before playing it with strength and conviction, a token of how much Bach means to both Harbisons.
Haydn's trios for violin, cello and piano have also been a long-term focus of Token Creek attention. The one chosen this time, in D (XV:24 in the Hoboken catalogue), is not a readily familiar piece, but it was typical of the composer's ability to offer interesting ideas and then explore them tellingly.
The first half of the performance ended with a premiere, and one of two works in the program scored for ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. This one was commissioned from a young Madison musician, Jeffrey Stanek, for the festival's anniversary. It is titled The Direction in Which the Wind Moves, cast in three short movements. The inspiration of nature generated what is plainly a lot of sound-effects writing, but with little musical substance (and some unpleasant shrillness from the two woodwinds). It was played a second time -- a very sensible idea in principle for introducing a new score -- but that did not change my reactions.
After the intermission, a work by a composer represented twice in this year's programs: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the most famous and influential composer-son of old J.S. Bach. This year is the tricentennial anniversary of C.P.E.'s birth, stimulating extensive re-evaluation of this composer's highly individual and experimental style.
The piece played was a Sonata in E minor scored for piano with violin and cello. A transitional work that bridged the gap between the Baroque trio sonata and the redefined trio world of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, it clearly cast the keyboard part as the dominant one (made even more so with John Harbison's use of a modern grand piano). It was a very thought-provoking piece, indeed, with a tiny slow movement flanked by a bold opening movement and a finale of short variations.
To close was the other work for the same mixed quintet Stanek used. In this case, though, the composer was no less than Harbison himself. It is a 2004 score titled Songs America Loves to Sing. For its 10 movements, Harbison chose 10 American songs -- hymns, spirituals and traditional ditties. But he admitted his difficulty in identifying songs that really were a shared part of our very diverse and ephemeral cultural traditions. His approach was to recast each of these in his own personalized expansion and explorations, with whimsical humor but also with thoughtfulness as well, in the spirit of Charles Ives. The results may not always prove entertaining, but they are certainly fascinating.
Overall, this was a concise but potent 25th anniversary celebration for the festival.