DEFOREST — From a conflicted, angry work by an aged Claude Debussy to the Midwestern premiere of a new piece about baseball, the first performance of the 2011 Token Creek Chamber Music Festival ranged from serious to seriously fun.
Pianists (and husband and wife) Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang opened the 22nd annual festival with five works for two pianos.
The eight-performance festival, which runs in a renovated DeForest barn through Sunday, Sept. 4, will feature three additional concerts highlighting Mozart, the jazz music of Burton Lane and Jule Styne, and Bach. Performers give each concert twice.
The first piece on the “two pianos” program, Debussy’s “Et Blanc et Noir” (1915), was difficult to love. Boston-based composer John Harbison, the festival’s co-artistic director with his wife, Rose Mary, warned as much. He explained that we, the audience, would probably want to return to the piece later to more fully appreciate its warlike, discordant themes.
Levin and Chuang, remarkably in sync, emphasized the textural differences as softness played against loud, dissonant chords. At times any hint of melody seemed to wander away. I found “Et Blanc” fascinating, though in truth, I have no desire to hear it again.
Igor Stravinsky’s 1944 Sonata for Two Pianos was more melodic by comparison. The middle section, called simply Theme with Variations, had a pleasingly simple, almost leisurely quality. Levin and Chuang’s lines overlapped and intertwined to great effect, creating a kind of musical tapestry.
Closing the first half was a showpiece: Witold Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini (1941), built around a theme for violin that most of the audience likely found familiar. With bright runs that transformed to a circuslike strain, the Variations could also sound delightfully aggressive, with torrential rhythms.
By contrast, Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Two Pianos (1952-53) brought out the intimacy possible when two like instruments converse.
With the pianos so close, everything felt somehow weightier: the church bell chords of the opening; hurried passages that evoked sped-up film of a city crowd; restrained, spare moments.
Especially on the Poulenc, Levin and Chuang played together in a joyful way, passing a melody carefully between them like a floating ball. From a lyrical Andante (“walking pace”) through a lively epilogue, this piece took no effort to enjoy.
John Harbison’s “Diamond Watch,” written for his colleague, economist Peter Diamond, played on Diamond’s love of baseball with a humorous exposition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” At first dissonant and heavy, “Diamond” rippled into a fabulous, jazz-inflected celebration of the classic American game.
“Diamond” was just the kind of curve ball that, I imagine, has been bringing people out to this little barn in DeForest for more than two decades.