The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival is the perfect summer wind-up: small-scaled, intimate, with genuine interaction between audience and performers, and a stimulating range of music.
The festival even issues some 10 single CDs on its own label, available by direct order. Drawing on performances from over the years, as recorded superbly by John Schaffer and handsomely produced, they document festival history while demonstrating its variety of musical categories (jazz and theater music as well as classical chamber works).
The first of this season's four programs, offered over the course of a week at John and Rose Mary Harbison's refurbished barn in DeForest, was typically diverse. The first half featured two very different sets of songs for voice and piano. In James Primosch's settings of three medieval Latin religious lyrics, the original melodies were retained while the piano part ambled about amiably - in the last one making a set of variations out of the nine stanzas. The second set, John Harbison's "Songs after Hours," contained 16 selections composed from 1952 to 2006: a conspectus of his stylistic range (art song, cabaret, flower-child blues, adaptations of items from his opera The Great Gatsby).
Soprano Mary Mackenzie matched a clear voice with superlative diction, especially crucial in the Harbison songs. Harbison accompanied her authoritatively in his own music, while the wonderfully accomplished Israeli-born Eli Kalman was pianist for the Primosch group. Following tradition, Harbison introduced each set, illuminating his own songs with his wonderfully droll wit, but holding a conversation with Primosch himself at the outset. Fascinating to have composers themselves at close quarters with their own music.
Harbison also introduced the largest work, the "Violin Sonata No. 2" by Ferruccio Busoni. Composed in 1899, this expansive piece requires both patience from the audience and stamina from the players. Its opening movement is rich in ideas that are not much developed, while the second is a fiery scherzo more of emotional contrast than structural relevance. A contemplative slow section leads at last to the sonata's main body, a studious and complex set of variations on a Bach chorale melody, eventually citing earlier themes. Only by then does the full work reveal some structural rationale. Her technique still strong, violinist Rose Mary Harbison displayed deep commitment to the work, while Kalman masterfully projected the heavily Brahmsian piano writing without swamping his partner.
Novel fare, but typical of Token Creek enterprise.