On Tuesday, the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival featured the regional premiere of a John Harbison composition in cozy, acoustically admirable St. Andrew's Episcopal Church.
With his wife, violinist Rose Mary, Harbison is the heart and soul of the Token Creek Festival. He is also one of America's leading composers, internationally recognized. A commission from the BBC prompted him to give musical expression to his experiences at Wisconsin's International Crane Foundation in a piece titled "Crane Sightings: An Eclogue for Violin and Strings," which received its world premiere at Tanglewood seven weeks ago. Its extremely florid and demanding solo part (intended for his wife) unfolds over hovering, contrapuntal lines of underpinning from the ensemble - either a full string orchestra or, as here, a string quartet with double bass.
The work has four brief sections. The first two, "Encounter" and "Flight," are less attempts at sound effects than evocations of the distinctive personalities and movements of these remarkable birds. The third section, "The Sadness of Marshes" (words drawn from Aldo Leopold), is Harbison's meditation on the prospect of a habitat denuded of its rightful occupants. It was the final section, however, that most intrigued me. Titled "Dance Variations," it gives four transformations of the old chorale "Nun danket alle Gott" (or "Now thank we all our God"), cast as bouncy interchanges between an elaborate solo line and pointilistic ensemble writing - the hymn tune never clearly stated, but embedded almost cryptically in those two elements.
Played superbly, "Crane Sightings" may have been the significant event of the program. Still, taking barely 15 minutes, it hardly reduced to filler status its successor, Schubert's expansive, almost symphonic "Octet in F" - at over an hour's duration one of his longest compositions. Despite a little unsteady string work at times, the eight players were generally splendid. Harbison's decision to conduct the piece paid off in tight organization, careful shaping and nicely pointed inflections.
How blessed are Madison summers, beginning with the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society and ending with the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, each in its way bringing us superlative musicians in adventurous programming.