TCCMF puts the 80-year old John Harbison squarely in the spotlight
There was a special program last Wednesday (8/28) in the Festival barn, the beloved and intimate venue of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival these past thirty years. It was meant to occur last February, around the time that other Madison events joined the worldwide celebration of Festival co-founder John Harbison’s 80th birthday, which took place last December. Not surprisingly, a stretch of typical Wisconsin winter precluded any such gathering, but the usual full barn this week was treated to a varied event, the kind of “concert” that sets the TCCMF apart from your “typical” summer fare.
Titled “Then and Now/Words & Music (for John Harbison’s 80th birthday),” it was divided into two major parts, Part I being “Then & Now.” After his usually pithy opening remarks (including “I”ve been celebrating an 80th birthday all year”—and deservedly so!), the proceedings officially began with a brief reading from Harbison’s recent book, What Do We Make of Bach? I was given an advance copy, and as a writer who has desperately needed my great editors over the last 31 years, it is a bit depressing to experience a writer as concise and insightful as Harbison, who is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer…
The brief and delightful work is both reflections on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, which has played such a crucial role in Harbison’s life as a composer and conductor, woven into aspects of his life. The excerpt he chose last Wednesday could hardly have been more personal: a recounting of the first time he and the then-Rose Mary Pederson (he called her “Rose Mary Harbison” twice in the reading!) worked on the Bach Violin Sonata, BWV 1014. They had exchanged few words beginning this first reading (c. 1960-61), but had mentioned that Bach was her favorite composer. The gist of Harbison’s comments in the book were what he gleaned from her playing that bore this out in her playing, while intertwining some wonderful expressions about what Bach gives to the artist who dares to explore the intricacies of his masterpieces.
Not surprisingly, this was followed by Rose Mary Harbison taking the stage and playing the Adagio movement with John. Her playing Wednesday—nearly 60 years removed from that seminal encounter—gave us a palpable sense of her abiding and simple devotion, not to mention glimpses of all that this couple has shared as musicians and spouses.
John Harbison now returned to the piano as soloist to play Contrapunctus V and IX from Bach’s last musical landmark, The Art of the Fugue. He reminded us that he started performing one of these movements at each TCCMF series eight years ago…but found that he hadn’t really understood number V a few years ago, and wanted to repeat it, along with IX. This time the performances were carefully delineated readings that illustrated why this music still stands alone after nearly 370 years.
Rose Mary returned for No. 1 from John Harbison’s 1985 Songs of Solitude. The unaccompanied work emerged reflecting the affection with which it had undoubtedly been composed, and when she was finished, she turned first to John to give him a bow, before acknowledging the applause of the audience. John Harbison then closed with his 2018 “Nocturne,” which he said demonstrated the “pleasure of not doing anything for a while.” He admitted he did not write it for himself but “found on some days that I can play it. I’m working on some new piano music which I’m sure I can’t play.” The Nocturne did indeed illustrate a gently restlessness that still managed to exude a final calm.
After a short “interval” (not a true intermission), Harbison had some fun with some audience participation that left everyone apparently baffled. He said up front that he was playing a Haydn minuet, but that there was something about the structure he wanted us to discern, and even played a stripped-down version that he thought might clarify the puzzle. No one hit upon it, and finally it was revealed that it was a true musical palindrome: the music “turns” on itself in the middle, and then goes “backwards,” ending up where it started.
Less enigmatic was Rose Mary returning to partner with John in an early Mozart Violin Sonata, K. 301. John told us that they began playing it during a time when Rose Mary was facing some physical challenges, and they searched for a work not too taxing technically, but more importantly uplifting. Indeed, their playing of the two movements (Allegro con spirit and Allegro) clearly revealed that they had played it together many times—just decided to share it with a hundred or so friends on this occasion.
Another musical game was presented, this time a brief tribute to John Schaffer (long time jazz partner and board member of TCCMF, who just retired from UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music this year). Harbison cobbled a tune from the letters of Schaffer’s surname (using both solfeggio and German notation references), and even had a small counterpoint in the middle based on Sarah Schaffer, also a long time board member and personal assistant to Harbison.
After a true intermission, Part II: Words and Music had another rare treat in store: the performance of “SchwartzSongs,) 2015-2017. The eight-minute work is set to three poems of Lloyd Schwartz. The poet being in attendance, he read the poems first, then Harbison and baritone Simon Barrad performed the set, twice. The first one, “In the Mist,” featured a slow motion loping, almost a lazy bluesiness in the piano, while Barrad immediately displayed a smooth and unforced instrument.
“Song” gave Barrad a chance to show off his lower range, with the piano again engaged in an easy liveliness, while “Crossword” featured a piano postlude following the impassioned questions of a lover. The “encore” of the encore was a fascinating discussion among all three, with each of them giving unique perspectives into the various creative processes and how they evolve from written word, to composer, to spoken word then sung. It was exactly the kind of thing that makes the TCCMF not just “another” summer musical event.
Sadly, it concludes this weekend, and certainly with a bang, not a whimper: both of the arguably the most powerful piano spouses in the world, Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang. They have both been here before as soloists; to have them share the performances on Saturday and Sunday should be the rarest of treats.