John Harbison

John Harbison, director of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.


What does it mean for music to be about a place? Does it portray something in an ecosystem, recall an experience in a place, attempt to capture a special characteristic?

“Outside In: Music About Place,” the final program in this year’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, didn’t attempt to answer the philosophical questions implied by the title. But it did put forward an interesting collection of pieces that, at a minimum, each reflected something important about a composer’s career as it unfolded in a given time and place.

For the two Bach arias with which the program opened, that “placeness” had to do with Weimar as the city in which Bach first seriously explored vocal writing. Both songs set religious texts, but the two had distinct their musical and poetic styles. “Öffne dich” (part of a larger cantata) is personal, happily inviting Christ to inhabit the singer’s body; “Alles mit Gott,” celebrates “All things with God,” but its more formal 12 verses were composed to honor the Duke of Weimar on his birthday — a rather secular celebration.

Soprano Anna Slate sang both songs, and was joined by a small ensemble of strings plus piano. Slate has a light, pleasing voice and great stage presence. The ensemble musicians were fine here, though I’ll admit to being in the camp that prefers harpsichord over piano for 18th century continuo; somehow the piano just doesn’t ring correctly. On the other hand, the more fully arranged ritornelli (instrumental sections between verses) in “Alles mit Gott” were gorgeous, lush, and lively in both writing and performance.

Mr. Harbison’s own “Crane Sightings” (2004) completed the first part of the program, and the connection to place couldn’t have been clearer. In this piece, he endeavored to reflect the intimacy and mystery of meeting two sandhill cranes while on a walk. It is a lovely, evocative piece that brings forth an experience of awe in nature without cutely mimicking natural sounds. So, for instance, the first two movements each centered around quick, tensile lines in the first violin that flashed briefly and were supported by more pensive gestures from the rest of the ensemble (violins, viola, cello, bass).

Mozart’s Divertimento in D Major, K. 334, closed the concert. He composed it in Salzburg, a city fraught with professional and personal challenges. Like “Crane Sightings,” this is an ensemble piece that features the first violin extensively. Though ostensibly written as background entertainment, it was also Mozart’s farewell to public violin playing, and as such he wrote beautiful, intense music for the soloist. Composed in six movements, the piece travels wide terrain (forgive the ‘place’ pun): it is at times regal, funereal, loping, slithery, and strict.

For the most part the ensemble played well, and there were moments that were quite transcendent, however, there were also passages that didn’t quite feel together, as in the halting chordal opening of the finale, which wasn’t sure-footed. This performance again featured Ms. Harbison as first violinist, and she struggled with intonation (sometimes sliding into notes) and imprecision in the harder passages. With all due respect to her for the gift she gives in hosting the festival on her family’s land as well as her desire to continue playing, the full range of the first violin part felt at times like it was beyond her. One of the challenges in playing Mozart is that classical music audiences know how it should sound — the music may struggle, but the performers never should — and thus the bar for clear, precise performances is especially high.

I am sorry to have missed the first program of this year’s festival, which consisted of a tour of and discussion about the property in its historical and ecological facets as a musical performance. I hope that in future seasons Token Creek will continue to explore its own place, including the special intimacy of such small performances and the beautiful setting that is set apart from everyday. These are surely things that make good performances even more compelling.


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