Token Creek CMF Dances the Summer Away

The 28th Festival’s final program gives us “Waltz”


John and Rose Mary Harbison opened up their Festival Barn once more last Sunday afternoon, and the closing program of their 28th Token Creek Chamber Music Festival presented varied composers’ treatments of the waltz. By program’s end, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, giving us a final perspective on this year’s overall theme, “Necessary Music.”

The opening numbers offered the Festival’s founders as a duo in three of Fritz Kreisler’s famous numbers. Some of the technical challenges, particularly in the opening “Caprice Viennois,” eluded Rose Mary’s grasp, but she ably compensated by infusing many phrases with a tenderness that comes only from more than half a century of study and performance. With John adding shaded accompaniment, the “Liebeslied” and “Schon Rosmarin” added an aural luster to the late afternoon glow in the Barn. The capacity audience responded with genuine and sustained warmth.

John Harbison returned alone for his own selection from Schubert’s more than three hundred waltzes for solo piano. These are unassuming works, but as with all truly lasting works whose beauty is wrapped in simplicity, it takes an artist of great discernment to resist the temptation to overplay them. Harbison did not tell us anything about the tempos or keys or even how many he had selected—but he did weave a hypnotic tapestry of unadorned loveliness.

Harbison left the virtuosity of execution and work to the following selection, the “Valses nobles et sentimentales” of Ravel, performed by Ya-Fei Chuang (pictured above, courtesy of Rayfield Allied). Harbison had shared at the top of the program comments that recalled that Schubert had published separate volumes of waltzes, one “Nobles” and one “Sentimentales,” and Ravel’s work, nearly a century later, paid homage to the concept. Of course, Ravel’s keyboard demands are of an entirely different world than Schubert, and one which we already know Chuang has fully mastered. Two fascinating—and tantalizing—things came of her reading Sunday. As soon as it was over, one of the Festival’s long-time volunteers immediately said to me “that was so different from what she did last night; this was so introspective.” Everything is relative; Chuang had met every purely technical challenge, but it would have been fascinating to hear both of her readings. But having heard her in other Ravel several seasons ago, I asked her afterwards if she would ever record the complete solo piano music of the French master. The answer: she is scheduled to do so, but the vagaries of getting it done, edited and out to market may mean a longer wait than we would like. Still…it is exciting to anticipate the eventuality.

The opening of the second half of the program had the most tenuous connection to the waltz, but was a compelling choice in its own right. The Sonata for Solo Cello is a 1955 work, and therefore very early, from George Crumb. Here one discerns the influence of Bartok, but young cellist Kyle Price revealed more than just the obvious allusions in the work’s three brief movements. Better still, Price is still working on his doctoral studies here in Madison, which means we might well have future opportunities to enjoy his maturation as an artist.

He was joined by another TCCMF “rookie,” violist Blakely Menghini, and Rose Mary Harbison and Chuang for one of the great piano quartets, the Op. 47 of Schumann. One could not expect the kind of unified reading one often hears at the hands of long-established ensembles. To fall back on a baseball analogy (yes, that season draws to its close, too) it was like having a future Hall of Famer (Chuang), the utterly experienced veteran (Harbison) and two promising future stars just making their major league debut. Of course, every time I indulge in a sports analogy, I am as quickly reminded that there are no scoreboards for Schumann or any other composer. But as with any special event, there were moments that stick in the mind: some stretches in the first movement where the foursome truly captured the Romantic spirit and urgency; a lovely mini-dialogue between viola and cello in the second movement; some strong leading by Harbison in the third movement (it starts like a slow waltz and then becomes a series of interwoven solos for each player); and a confident finale.

Finally we are left with that frustrating blend of post-concert glow, and regret that summer is leaving us, that I have found so unique and consistent in attending many TCCMF events since 2010. We are always left wondering a little…was this the last one? Let’s hope at the very least that the Harbisons and their board members long to see them reach a nice round number; that would give us two more Festivals at least.

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