At the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, there are no holds on what the artistic directors can play.

Artistic directors John Harbison and Rose Mary Harbison can revisit ideas in chamber music that they are interested in at their annual festival, which takes place in a quaint performance barn in Token Creek just off highway 19. The festival is now in its 28th season.

Harbison said that although he and Rose Mary Harbison initially thought of addressing political change with this year’s festival, they found that many of their colleagues were putting together performances around that theme.

“We took a different tack,” Harbison said. “We decided to investigate … engrossing and uplifting things that were positive statements.”

For example, the first program shows their interest in trios by Joseph Haydn.

“We thought of him as an important composer that is not heard, even in concert music so much,” Harbison said.

But, he said, many of Haydn’s trios were worth hearing, and at their small festival, they have the advantage of playing them.

Harbison said he and Rose Mary Harbison used to play and perform at other small festivals, but eventually wondered what it would be like to make the decisions rather than show up and play what they were asked to play.

“Actually thinking up what might go together on the concerts, that’s interesting,” Harbison said. “You don’t know how it is until you do it. Usually what we know about the programs [when playing in them] is just individually how the item elements work, but as a whole – that’s always the interesting part.”

As a smaller festival, Harbison said they can be more independent of considerations such as filling a thousand seats in a larger hall, or considering what other people want to hear. The festival is not as much about growth as it is about the Harbisons exploring what interests them.

In this year’s festival, Harbison said the first program, performed Aug. 26 and 27, is an expression of artistic goals and events. 

The program concentrates on a lost art – a language that expresses musical chords in numbers for composition. Harbison said the language went out of use around the late 1700s, but survives due to music that has been written using it.

The program, “Continuo,” features compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach, Haydn and a pre-premiere of one of Harbison’s own compositions.

The program title is also a pun on the word, hinting at something ongoing and established, Harbison said. In music, that means sustained engagement with a composition and the multiple interpretations and nuances within it.

“One of the fascinating things about concert music is that we still are interested in and still are trying to figure out how to perform things that were written two or three hundred years ago, which in pop music is very rare,” Harbison said.

Concert music and commercial pop music are different in what they present to the audience, Harbison said.

“Concert music has a tradition of a certain amount of what it presents being really uncertain about its relationship with the public,” he said. “A successful pop group is not supposed to be mystifying the public or in some ways presenting them something outrageously different – but a certain part of concert music has always been doing that.”

The second program in the festival, performed Aug. 30 revisits work by Franz Schubert as a response to last year’s all-Schubert program. Last year’s festival included a lot of music related to water to celebrate rerouting a stream on the Harbison property closer to its original pathway running to Token Creek, Harbison said.

This year, the festival explores two of Schubert’s later works, “Schwanengesang” and “Moments Musicaux” as well as a third work.

The third program, performed Sept. 2 and 3, focuses on concert waltzes. Waltzes originated as something that people danced at parties, but concert composers caught on to the style.

“A lot of concert composers also wrote waltz-derived music without necessarily knowing whether anybody was actually going to dance to them,” Harbison said.

The program explores the flexibility and diversity of waltz with a variety of composers, exploring their different styles of waltz.

Performances take place at the Festival Barn on Highway 19, one mile east of Hwy 51. For more information on performers or for tickets and reservations, call 608-241-2525 or visit www.tokencreekfestival.org.

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