The Crowning Concert of Three Decades

Token Creek Festival closes its 30th season with two masters of the keyboard


One never lacks for opportunities to praise the latest event from co-founders John and Rose Mary Harbison, but even so it should be said up front that when it comes to concluding the 30th season of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, they indeed saved the best for last.

That was accomplished by bringing two of the great pianists of our time, who have both been here before, but I don’t believe appeared in the Festival barn at the same time, namely Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang. They are spouses as well as keyboard wizards, so we may surmise they appreciated the linking up of their usually hectic schedules.

Before we were treated to their individual gifts however, John Harbison again spent a few minutes in well-deserved tribute to the board members, along the way sprinkling in many affectionate and interesting comments about the journey many of the members have taken en route to their service to the TCCMF.

The only downside of the Sunday afternoon concert was that we didn’t get Harbison’s always pithy and insightful comments on the repertoire, nor did Levin or Chuang address the works (with one exception). There was one example of spousal/artistic collaboration in the opening, as Chuang played Levin’s completed of a Mozart fragment, now listed as an Allegro in G Major, K. 357 (1786). The one surprise was that the piano being used sounded a bit bright and brittle for Mozart; what was not surprising was to find both Chuang’s playing and Levin’s compositional work both seamless.

Chuang then unleashed all of her magic in Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit,” one of the most fiendishly difficult and colorful of all piano pieces. The three movements may truly be described as fantastic as the character and situations they intend to illustrate. We had heard her play this before a few years ago, in a concert that also included more Ravel. On this occasion, it could not be helped that the critic in me faded away to mere fan…I was seated in the second row of the narrow balcony, but being unable to easily watch Chuang proved a blessing: late afternoon sun bathed my face in warmth while the gentle ceiling fans wafted cool air on the other side. All the while Chuang and Ravel conjured up colors that can only be heard, not seen, and for twenty minutes we enjoyed the pinnacle of the Token Creek experience: every aspect of the environment, performer and music combined to create an unforgettable experience.

Levin then closed the first half with the third movement of Harbison’s Piano Sonata No. 2, from 2001. Here Levin did speak of his early involvement with Harbison and his music, and after encountering the Piano Sonata No. 1 (1987), asked Harbison to write one for him. Harbison agreed—for $1 (“I’ll take care of the money,” Harbison told Levin)—and the work finally surfaced over a decade later. From a musical standpoint, the fascinating thing that Levin shared was that Harbison later decided it needed a fourth movement, that “answered” all the questions of the previous movements. Indeed, this “Tranquillo-Brusco” that Levin performed on Sunday was enigmatic. Levin attacked the growing tension in the piece, which ended in a long, fading chord…followed of course by the same kind of ovation from the packed barn audience that Chuang had earned.

Chuang opened the second half with more bravura, Liszt’s “Reminiscences de Don Juan (after Mozart).” After the expected Romantic fire and brimstone (not much Mozart in the early pages!), the work focuses on the tune from the aria “La ci darem la mano,” and Chuang’s treatment of the cross-hand accompaniment was worth standing up to see.

Levin closed with one of his finest examples of transcription, his arrangement for piano and strings of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. Joined by violinists Rose Mary Harbison and Laura Burns, violists Jen Paulson and Kaleigh Accord, cellist Karl Lavine and bassist Ross Gilliland, one was treated to new insights into one of the great concertos. What was so telling is that there never was a moment when one thought, oh but I miss the woodwinds, here, etc. It works in its own right, and Levin applied all his subtle technique to highlighting cherished passages in a fresh context. The six string players were all wonderful in both their level of passion and judicious phrasing.

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