Token Creek Chamber Music Festival: Ripe and Ready for the 29th Time

Opening program of Bach and Primosch is indeed a “harvest”


Any one of the previous incarnations of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival’s end-of-summer celebrations might have been dubbed “Harvest.” As it happens, it is this year, the 29th go-round of great music, pithy insights and the precious camaraderie shared by a hundred or so folks in “The Barn” on Highway 19, that is so named. The Sunday afternoon concert (a repeat of the opening program from the day before) certainly lived up to the simple billing, as we benefited from generally overlooked Bach, and the considerable stimulations of contemporary composer James Primosch.

One doesn’t usually associate chamber concerts with vocalism, but John and Rose Mary Harbison (whose family has owned the Token Creek farm for nearly a century), have a long and proud tradition of bringing in promising singers—and they usually ask them to perform exceptional repertoire. (John is pictured above at the piano from a previous TCCMF).

The afternoon began with J.S. Bach’s Cantata BWV 158, utilizing soprano, bass, five string players and John Harbison on portative, essentially a portable organ. Sarah Yanovitch was the winsome soprano, possessed of a clear voice perfectly suited for Bach—but overbalanced ere long by the stentorian baritone of Ryne Cherry. The strings were led by Rose Mary Harbison and Laura Burns, violins, Jen Paulson on viola, Mark Bridges, cellist and Ross Gilliland, bass. It wasn’t long before we had a serious obbligato of heavy rain pelting the roof, but the venerable barn refused to leak, and all was well.

The strings took center stage, if you will, with three arrangements of Chorale Preludes by Bach, with the low strings given the spotlight in the last of them, in the BWV 659a.

The balance of the first half was devoted to three works of Primosch. Born in 1956 and based in the Philadelphia area, he was here at TCCMF in 2008 (just before my time covering the event), and is particularly well-known for music that nearly always seeks a spiritual expression; thus he makes a fine pairing with J.S. Bach. First we were given numbers 3 and 4 from Holy the Firm, a 1999 work. “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” is a setting of a fascinating seventh-century text of John Climacus, giving us a fresh perspective on the account of Jacob’s ladder, from the book of Genesis. Here Yanovitch was given full rein; with the composer at the piano we fully enjoyed her full dynamic range and expressiveness. “Cinder” is a setting of Susan Stewart’s poem of irresistible imagery. The piano part is chordal, almost static, and yet had a way of drawing us along without getting in the way of the text.

“Psalm 116” is but a single verse in the Latin Vulgate (“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints”). Cherry gave a fully intense reading, with the serpentine phrase elongations on the last syllables particularly arresting. The last song was on a Melville text—and given its world premiere the day before. Commissioned by SongFest for Harbison’s upcoming 80th birthday (December 20), the lines from Moby Dick illustrate an eagle that flies so high in the mountains that even when he is in the gorges he is still higher than the birds that soar above the plain. This piece too was full of flourishes for both Cherry and Primosch at the piano; he is a composer that decidedly has a knack for selecting a small portion of text and maximizing its expressiveness.

The second half was devoted to J.S. Bach once more, opening with Harbison’s explanation of the intricacies of the “Contrapunctus VII” from The Art of the Fugue—the last and arguably most cerebral of the great master’s works. This movement featured a subject that appears at three different speeds—and yet in the performance of it, one was quickly lost in the greater abstraction of the whole.

The rest of the afternoon delivered three more short cantatas, BWV 57, 73 and 58. Again we had that rare opportunity to absorb great, yet overshadowed, masterpieces in an intimate setting. It is a wonderful thing to hear Bach in a church, but these smaller works are all the more powerful when given in a more cozy environment.

In the end, the harvest was threefold: we wanted more Bach “new” to us, more of Yanovitch and Cherry…and of course, more of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival. Happily we have three more chances for two disparate programs. Wednesday at 7:30 there are string quartets of Scodanibbio, Cowell, Partch and Johnston. Yes, these are known as “difficult” works, but if there is ever a time and place to encounter them, it’s here at the TCCMF. The artists are the Kepler Quartet, and with introductory remarks and demonstration (and the chance to speak with the artists afterward), we should get the best exposure possible to these landmark works.

The final programs. Saturday and Sunday at 4 p.m., focus on Schumann’s glorious song cycle Dichterliebe and his Piano Trio No. 1, along with Mozart, Haydn—and a Harbison world premiere. Go bring in the sheaves…

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