Summer is a season of communion in the classical music world. In Madison there are lively outdoor concerts like Concerts on the Square and Opera in the Park. Professional performers also gather in peaceful rural settings to reflect and relax while sharing ideas, practicing and giving concerts. Such environments inspired John and Rose Mary Harbison to found the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival. The 25th-anniversary edition takes place in a barn just outside city limits (4037 Highway 19 in Token Creek) on Aug. 23-31.
John, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and M.I.T. professor, and Rose Mary, a violinist, originally sought a variety of ensemble events. Over time they found they wanted a deeper connection with composers, performers and audience members. This became especially important as other small music venues grew larger and more commercial.
"We were never really as interested in growing as we were interested in having a free hand," John says. "We saw that with growth comes, sometimes, less autonomy because people begin to worry about which programs will bring a big audience."
This year the Harbisons join local and international guest performers to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach's birth. The group will perform several of his compositions in themed concerts, along with works by his father, Baroque bigwig J.S. Bach. They'll also examine music by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and Harbison himself. The fest opens with a program featuring the world premiere of a commissioned piece by Jeff Stanek.
C.P.E. Bach is an exciting subject in classical music scholarship right now. His music is becoming better known thanks to Harvard University's Christoph Wolff and Robert Levin, who are compiling a complete edition of his work.
"They are producing more music for this composer than we've ever had before," John notes. "So we wanted to investigate for ourselves this worldwide 300th anniversary."
John also points to the younger Bach's historical significance.
"He's a crucial person for... the next generation [of composers]," John says.
John had J.S. Bach on his mind while composing Songs America Loves to Sing, which will be performed on Aug. 23 and 24. The piece borrows melodies from American popular culture.
"I thought of [these melodies] as a J.S. Bach connection of a rather peculiar kind. I was thinking of the principles of a chorale prelude. It's a very big issue with Bach -- in some of his fugues, for instance -- that the tune has to be familiar," John says.
The elder Bach's preludes came from hymns sung regularly in Germany's Lutheran churches, so they must have sounded familiar to many of his audiences.
"They would have sung all of those basic melodies so much that they would have taken them right in, which I think he considered one of his greatest ways to reach an audience," John says.