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Classical-era masters
Token Creek fest kicks off with Mozart and Haydn
Festival co-host Rose Mary Harbison led the strings.
Festival co-host Rose Mary Harbison led the strings.

The annual chamber music festival held in the Festival Barn on the property of John and Rose Mary Harbison near Token Creek has become one of our special summer treasures. This year it runs Aug. 23-31, with each of four programs given twice. The programs range from adaptations of Bach, to jazz, to music by Harbison himself.

The opening concert united the music of those two special friends, Haydn and Mozart, in two neat pairings. There were two of Haydn's trios for piano and strings, in both of which the opening movement outbalanced the other two sections. The Trio in E minor of 1789 begins with music of such darkness and power as one might not associate with Haydn, while the 1797 Trio in E-flat starts with a long and intricate set of variations, then ending with a wild, folklike dance movement.

Alternating with those trios were two piano concertos by Mozart, No. 12 in A major (K. 414) and No. 14 in E-flat (K. 449). The composer advised that in these and a few other such concertos, the wind parts could be dropped for an orchestra of strings only. That reduced scoring was pared here to string quintet (including a double bass), allowing exactly the intimacy of chamber or domestic performance the composer envisioned.

What made all these performances an event was the participation of pianist Robert Levin, with his wife, pianist Ya-Fei Chuang. Each appeared in one trio and one concerto, and then they joined in two Mozart piano duets that Levin had realized from incomplete drafts. One of the leading scholar-performers of music of the Classical era, Levin has been a champion of the early fortepiano, proving that it is no mere antique, no ephemeral predecessor to the "real" pianoforte.

For this appearance, however, he worked with a modern Steinway. In his Haydn, his clean articulation and pearly tone showed his experience with the fortepiano without imitating it, while in his concerto he used modern piano sonority with unashamed panache and strong expressiveness - improvising his cadenzas in period style. Chuang demonstrated parallel clarity of technique, if just a shade less assertiveness.

A team of local musicians (Laura Burns, Jennifer Paulson, Parry Karp, Ross Gilliland), led by Rose Mary Harbison, provided the string partnerships, obviously relishing their chance to work with these two distinguished visitors.

Wonderful and appropriately paired compositions, played with special flair, made for an ideal musical experience, one long to be remembered.

Festival co-host Rose Mary Harbison led the strings.

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