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Token Creek Chamber Music Festival concludes its 2013 program with thrilling pairings
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John Harbison presented some of his own compositions at the finale.
Credit:Token Creek Chamber Music Festival

The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival concluded this past weekend, and its final program was titled "Finale: The Old & Unfamiliar." It might also be called "Three Pairings."

The basic pairing, of course, is that of Rose Mary and John Harbison, the co-directors of the festival. They played in all seven pieces on the program, she as violinist, he as pianist and a final stint as violist. John presented some of his own compositions as well.

But there was also a pairing of the two composers whose music dominates the program: W.A. Mozart and Henry Purcell. And there was yet another pairing, of musical "completers": Harbison again and Robert Levin.

Levin, one of today's leading champions of the fortepiano, is an old friend of the Harbisons, and a frequent participant in these festivals, so his absence was very much felt. Among his talents is a skill for completing works that Mozart left unfinished. He is one of those who have tried to create a "purified" and more authentic performing version of Mozart's Requiem, but he has also done a lot of work with odds and ends of chamber-music pieces that Mozart began but put aside, incomplete.

Levin's skill in "inhabiting" the mind and style of a long-dead master is demonstrated in fragments of movements for violin-piano sonatas. Two such examples, left unfinished by Mozart in 1784 and 1789, have been given convincing and stylish resolutions, actually involving a great deal of original writing on Levin's part, and these were offered in the program.

Levin and the Harbisons had been experimenting with these completions decades back, and in 1968 the young John undertook to finish out a violin-piano sonata movement that Levin himself also attempted. It is John's own completion that is played in this program, all three of these reconstructions performed by Rose Mary and himself.

Those adventures provided a perfect backdrop for a new and fully original composition by John: Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano, in its world premiere. The work is in three movements. Each comments on familiar stereotypes. The first, titled "Serious Songs" is plainly influenced by the blues, while the second, "Ballad," hints at cowboy songs. The third, "Waltz," is almost an anti-waltz, not in the least fit for dancing. The composer and his wife played this as well.

Along the way, two of Purcell's "Sonatas in Four Parts," published posthumously in 1797, displayed the composer's endlessly fascinating experimentation with "far-out" chromaticism, an obsession of many 17th-century musicians. Violinist Heidi Braun-Hill joined Rosemary in the sinuously fascinating upper parts, while cellist Karl Lavine worked with pianist John on the continuo part.

The grand finale came with a curiously scored Mozart work not frequently heard. This was his Quintet in E-flat, K.407, for horn, violin, two violas and cello. The assertive writing for the horn makes this almost a kind of solo concerto, the "orchestra" of string players having its own sonorities as a bloc. Whitacre Hill was a splendidly fluent hornist, while John Harbison slipped into his other identity as the second violist (with Braun-Hill as first).

All this musical wealth, in all these varied combinations, was brought forth by only five musicians. This was "chamber" music of the best kind: collegial performing, in intimate contact with a small, eager audience, in a lovely rural escape.

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