Token Creek Chamber Music Festival at 30: Time to Tweak One Thing

All-Brahms concert produces a different kind of poignancy

It didn’t take long on Sunday afternoon, as an all-Brahms program unfolded in the Festival barn at Token Creek, to realize that this would not be an easy blog to post…

Some context, with apologies to those who may already know some of this: I have been a published critic since my first review at The Los Angeles Times in 1988. Summer events, from the splashy grandeur of the Hollywood Bowl to the relaxed outdoor intimacy of the Ojai Festival, have always been among my favorite events.

When I first attended a concert at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival in August, 2010 I had been in Sun Prairie since 2001—and shame on me for not getting there sooner. For I immediately realized that these concerts at the festival co-founded by John and Rose Mary Harbison were among the most cherishable of summer events.

The Festival barn seats somewhere just over one hundred listeners, and it took only one concert to feel the special bond between the Harbisons and their audience—not to mention the world-class artists who joined them. That occasion proved more auspicious than I could have imagined; the professional connections I made that afternoon were the catalyst to an active writing career in the Madison area. But even if that had not been the case, I would have marked my calendar each year to kiss summer goodbye with a group of people that, although I didn’t know most of them by name, felt like a unique kind of family.

Sometime in the last few seasons though something began to happen that increasingly became problematic; the violin playing of Rose Mary Harbison was less frequently up to the level of the guest artists. Until now I have skirted the issue, and indeed it must be said that, based on audience response and ticket sales, nothing was dampening the enthusiasm of the concertgoers—not to mention the fact that not only is she co-founder of this precious series, but it has always been clear how integral her presence has been to the heartbeat of the Festival.

But this past Sunday’s concert has finally brought me to the point where the issue should be addressed, beginning with Rose Mary Harbison’s transversal of Brahms’ Violin Sonata in G Major, Op. 78. Partnered by the still-world class pianist, Janice Weber, Harbison struggled with the Olympian demands of the work. Allow me to make this absolutely clear: this is not to suggest that Rose Mary Harbison put down her instrument in future TCCMF concerts, simply that she should exercise more caution in her choice of repertoire.

The afternoon opened with a short but telling performance of “Nachklung” from the Op. 59 songs, given a sensitive reading by Kathleen Otterson with Weber. The first half concluded with a deeply rich interpretation of the Op. 38 Cello Sonata, with Rhonda Rider enjoying the detailed partnership of Weber.

The second half was by turns a robust and tender reading of the Piano Quartet, Op. 60. Here Rose Mary Harbison fared much better, with Rider again showing off her resonant sound with an opening solo in the Andante that was a virtual “song without words.” Violist Lila Brown wasted no time in adding to the warmth of the ensemble in the opening Allegro, and Weber again proved the consummate equal partner, never dominating to the detriment of the string players, and putting all of her considerable virtuosity at the service of this somewhat overlooked masterpiece.

The 30th TCCMF continues Wednesday night with a belated birthday celebration of John Harbison’s 80th birthday last December. The 7:30 event will be highlighted with readings from his recent book, What Do We Make of Bach?, along with music of Bach, Harbison, Mozart and Schoenberg. It will include the “Schwartz Songs” of Harbison, set to poetry of Lloyd Schwartz, who will also be on hand to contribute.

The Festival concludes on August 31 and September 1 with the astonishing husband and wife pianists, Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang; it would be treat enough to experience either of them in such a setting (and we have previously at the Barn); to hear them both in the same afternoon is nothing short of spectacular.


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