Token Creek Restored—and at Flood Stage, Musically Speaking

27th season of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival overflows (artistically) in opening concert

One of Madison’s sweetest farewells to summer always occurs at the Festival Barn, the former residence of Rose Mary Harbison’s family dating back to the 1930s. During that decade the ecological gem known as Token Creek was ruined by short-sighted commercial development. Rose Mary and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John may have started their summer festival 27 years ago, but it took even longer for the Creek to recapture its original freshness.

Now that that day has arrived, it is only fitting that this year’s TCCMF is titled “Water Music,” and Saturday night’s opening event was a wondrous flow of the usually varied selections.

The popularity of the event shows no signs of abating; once again not only was every seat taken on the main floor and the smaller areas above, but folks were leaning and sitting in nearly every available spot. And why not? The Harbisons and friends have always brought world class artists and compelling performances to the Festival Barn, and word is that this year’s concerts (three programs with five performances in all) have sold briskly.

True to form, the night opened with a Schubert rarity, “Auf den Strom” (“Upon the River”), scored for tenor, horn and piano. Daniel O’Dea was the enthusiastic vocalist, Linda Kimball added some delicious horn artistry, and pianist Molly Morkoski demonstrated that she was prepared to give us sparkling playing throughout the evening.

The highlight of the first half followed, with Morkoski partnering with mezzo soprano Margaret Lattimore (pictured above, courtesy of Ars Nova Arts Management). For Lattimore this was her Token Creek debut (Morkoski first appeared here in 2013). In a selection of six water-themed Schubert songs to texts by Goethe, the duo ranged from amiable to deeply moving, with “Rastlose Liebe” and “Ganymed” particularly memorable.

The first half closed with a welcome standard, if a work not obviously tied in to the overall theme, Bach’s Concerto in E Major for Violin and Strings. Rose Mary Harbison led the small ensemble from her seat (John, who had pointed out in the program notes Bach’s ensemble-oriented approach to concerto writing, also connected the notion of tributaries flowing together). He performed the keyboard duties, and with five other string players often seen and heard at Token Creek and throughout the season in Madison combined to deliver a well-thought out interpretation.

The second half was largely the John Harbison show, first as soloist in the Contrapunctus II, III and VIII from Bach’s The Art of the Fugue. Here the listener (this one at least) loses himself in a transparent forest of notes, starting with a single line each time, gradually leading into a wordless spiritual vista of the sort only J.S. Bach could create.

Harbison the composer was next, as Lattimore and Morkoski again teamed for his Motetti di Montale, Libro IV. The 1939 texts in this case reference natural sounds around the water more than the water itself. This set of four (the entire work consists of twenty short numbers) was most notable for the collaboration of the performers in their ability to subtly emphasize the often spare musical lines (Lattimore has studied the work under Harbison and recorded it).

The closing work was a rarity for the Festival, a Bach cantata, BWV 165, O heilges Geist-und Wasserbad. The 1715 work (much earlier than the majority of Bach’s cantatas) was set to a text of Salomo Franck. In both the written and spoken remarks, Harbison illuminated points musical, literary and liturgical. The work employs brief work for four different soloists, with Lattimore and O’Dea being joined by Kristina Bachrach and Nathan Krueger. Along with another crack ensemble of five string players plus John Harbison on piano, it was a powerful and persuasive way to bring the night to a convincing close; the thematic connection lay in the work’s emphasis on the baptism of the believers with Christ.

The Festival continues tonight (Tuesday) with Second City Musick headlining a wonderful lineup of music for viols, including the Wisconsin premiere of Harbison’s The Cross of Snow. The Festival ends with a program on Friday at 7:30, repeated Sunday at 4, with Schubert’s song cycle Die Schone Mullerin and his celebrated “Trout” Quintet.

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