Token Creek Chamber Music

Program VI

TCF 2020 Virtual Season · Music from the Barn


2020 Virtual Season · Program VI · Contemporaries


Piano Sonata No.1 (1930) Roger Sessions (1896-1985) I. Andante II. Allegro III. Andante. Poco meno mosso. Tempo IV. Molto vivace
  • Judith Gordon, piano
  • from the 1996 Token Creek Festival
Tre Pezzi, Op. 14E (1979) György Kurtág (b. 1926) I. Öd und traurig II. Vivo III. Aus der Ferne - Sehr leise - Äußerst langsam
  • Rose Mary Harbison, violin
  • Judith Gordon, piano
  • from the 1998 Token Creek Festival
Four Combinations for Three Instruments (1924) Henry Cowell (1897-1965) Allegretto Largo Allegro Largo
  • Andrew Waggoner, violin
  • Caroline Stinson, ‘cello
  • Molly Morkoski, piano
  • from the 2013 Token Creek Festival
Trois Hommages (1972), selections Robert Helps (1928-2001) I. Hommage à Fauré III. Hommage à Ravel
  • Robert Helps, piano
  • from the 1990 Token Creek Festival
String Quartet No. 3 (2006) Lee Hyla (1952-2014)
  • The Lydian String Quartet:
  • Daniel Stepner, violin
  • Judith Eissenberg, violin
  • Mark Berger, viola
  • Joshua Gordon, ‘cello
  • from the 2015 Token Creek Festival
Variations on a Theme of Paganini (1941) Witold Lutosławski (1912-1994)
  • Robert Levin & Ya-Fei Chuang, pianos
  • from the 2011 Token Creek Festival
Sudden, Unbidden (1998/2013) Anna Weesner (b. 1965)
  • Andrew Waggoner, violin
  • Caroline Stinson, ‘cello
  • from the 2013 Token Creek Festival
Another acre or so of being. . . (from Four Poetic Images) (1988) Michael Alec Rose (b. 1959)
  • Ryan McCullough, piano
  • from the 2015 Token Creek Festival
The Direction in Which the Wind Moves (2014) Jeffrey Stanek (b. 1984) 1. A little breeze sweeping over the prairie, where does it come from? Poco scorrevole 2. Toward the receding horizon Lontano 3. Interception Poco scorrevole (all sections played without pause)
  • Dawn Lawler, flute
  • Joseph Morris, clarinet
  • Rose Mary Harbison, violin
  • Laura Burns, violin
  • Karl Lavine, cello
  • John Harbison, piano
  • from the 2014 Token Creek Festival

Program Notes

It is useful, we trust, for this day’s webcast to begin with music of Cowell and Sessions, because it raises questions about a familiar point of demarcation in discussions of American music, the division (like all such distinctions very blurry) between, on the one hand, a mainstream, highline, European descended, symphonic group and, on the other hand, the so-called Iconoclasts, the tinkerers, nose-thumbers, and go-alones.

In the journalistic form of this dichotomy the first group would house Sessions, Carter, Copland, Perle, Druckman, Gershwin (you can get the idea), the second group Ives, Cowell, Ruggles (already we see the problems), Nancarrow, Feldman, Cage, Harris?

Let me anticipate the conclusion here: I believe the best American composers are all in both camps to varying percentages. Only secondary composers, most already forgotten, have staked everything on being only one or the other.

European opinion (the UK excepted) embraces mainly Group Two, reveling in the idea that the only viable American concert music should be composed by amateurs—savages who hit upon something “that we don’t have,” as a European colleague explained to me.

I know some of my best assignments will raise objections. Gershwin? Harris?

How does this dubious split operate in real time? Obviously the key arena is the composer at work: in what ways do critical faculties operate, what kinds of musical thinking are embraced or rejected. What public is envisioned, what performance medium is sought? How much of a role should folk and pop music play?

Two personal anecdotes:

1) Sitting next to Roger Sessions at the premiere of his choral piece Three Choruses on Biblical Texts. (“Has a lot of Juice,” said the then mid-eighties composer during the rehearsal.) The performance was preceded, provocatively, by Ives’ Robert Browning Overture. Sessions accompanied the Ives with a number of expressive grunts and grumbles, which were later translated —“it is unfinished,” “steps on his best ideas,” “slapdash.” Well, the Browning Overture is not Ives’ best foot, but I had the feeling that Sessions’ professional ear was likely to be offended even by better Ives pieces, as was Copland’s, whose private and public comments on Ives were more positive but still guarded, as if spoken for The Guild.

2) Sitting on a composition jury with Morton Feldman, with him commenting first in his comic epigram mode as he concentrates on a very promising entry: “Kid’s got talent, let’s get rid of him.” Then later, seriously contemplating a very strong, somewhat over-determined but polished piece from a “university” composer: “This guy should be getting out more. . .”

Feldman and Sessions, both extremes of a kind: Sessions carrying to some ultimate audible threshold the post-European harmonic and contrapuntal heritage, asking the most possible of his listeners, carrying on Schoenberg’s touching belief that we will all be singing these melodies someday; and Feldman believing we can be interested, over hours of time, in the smallest changes and gradations of sound, trusting that we can all be as interested in the weave of the rug as he is.

— John Harbison
Artistic Co-Director, Token Creek Chamber Music Festival

We might have titled this program “Linneages.” It would be impossible for us to trace all the important relationships that permeate thirty years of festival programming— teachers, students, mentors, influencers—but perhaps nowhere are the connections more baldly evident than in this peculiarly assembled and inaptly titled “Contemporaries” program. Like all the other programs on our virtual series, this is a compilation, an assemblage of past performances. This program marches through music of the last century and our own time, offering just the barest tantalizing glimpses of pieces important us, and to posterity, amalgamated only in this virtual space, but nothing that would ever have appeared on a regular concert season as a single program. The juxtaposition of these pieces together here allows them to shed light on each other and on their composers. Among the most obvious connections: Roger Sessions was a composition teacher of John Harbison, and Robert Helps his piano teacher at Princeton; Harbison was mentor to Anna Weesner and Jeffrey Stanek; and something of a mutually reciprocal influence played out between Michael Rose and John Harbison. Other relationships saturate programming at Token Creek, apparent on other programs on this series. And perhaps it’s worth mentioning that so much of it goes back to J.S. Bach, who serves as something of a moral compass, a lighthouse that guides so much of our programming.

Sessions’ first piano sonata, an early work, provides a generous opening for this program, and offers a helpful, nourishing way into his music. Often seeming impenetrably thorny and difficult on its surface, Sessions writes music of extraordinary elegancy and skill, with a characteristic melodic quality and a clear sense of structure and tonality. This one movement sonata is formally in three large sections performed without pause. The Andante introduction is, structurally, a preview of, a part of, the second movement. In a very clever kind of formal overlap, this music is “interrupted” by the first movement proper, marked Allegro. Syncopation and imitation define the principal ideas of the first movement, while the material of the central movement recalls a nineteenth-century keyboard idiom (note the chordal accompaniment in the left hand). The Molto vivace finale requires a pianist of formidable skill and endurance. With traces of the composer’s early, neo-classicist style, it has been described as a Ravel sonatine gone atonal.
(Thanks to Arkivmusic for portions of this description)

After the lushness and expansiveness of the Sessions sonata, the three pieces of Gyorgy Kurtág seem like studied exercises in aphorism and detachment. The first is desolate, the second dynamic and the third distant. The enigmatic Kurtág has composed a huge catalogue that resonates with the music of the past he loves most – Bach, Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven, Bartók, Webern. It also speaks with a fearless directness that bypasses musical tradition and becomes its own idiom. In Kurtág’s tiny fragments lies music of unflinching emotional and existential rawness His work creates a world of apparently unmediated feeling. It is full of the joys and despairs of life,
(Thanks to Marc Rochester, Arkivmusic and Tom Service, The Guardian for portions of this description.)

In 2013, members of OpenEnd Ensemble joined us for a concert titled “New Works & Improvisations.” In addition to the core of their work of reclaiming improvisation and spontaneous creation in a concert setting, in evidence that evening, the group offered also offered composed music that is “wonderful, intimate, challenging, and beautiful.”

Known best for his tone clusters and opaque sonorities, the title of Henry Cowell’s piano trio, Four Combinations for Three Instruments, refers to the work’s changing scoring as it proceeds: violin and cello in movement 1, violin and piano in movement 2, cello and piano in movement 3, and all three instruments in the final movement. The work is characterized by his use of “dissonant counterpoint.”

Anna Weesner writes colorful, evocative music known for its short and unexpected titles (such as: What Gathers, What Lingers; Light and Stone; Still Things Move). Originally composed for string quartet, she adapted Sudden, Unbidden for violin and cello duo in 2013, for Andrew Waggoner and Caroline Stinson, who present it here. Like much of her music, the piece is highly eventful, animated, and full of surprising turns.

Robert Helps was with us for the inaugural seasons of the Token Creek Festival, 1989-90, as both composer and pianist. The Trois Hommages is still one of his most popular and frequently recorded works. While the “luscious pianism and nostalgic harmonies” of these pieces are sonic evocations of the composers they honor (Fauré, Rachmaninoff, Ravel), Helps wrote:

I have consistently avoided writing descriptive notes for the “3 Hommages,” preferring the listener to react to these three pieces without prejudicial comments from the composer. These pieces were not written as a set; although I felt they complement each other quite well, they are very performable as separate pieces. The first two hommages are much more tonal than any other music of mine. All three are very pianistic. The titles of the pieces, with the exception of the Ravel, were arrived at long after their composition. The first two were therefore obviously not written, as could easily be conjectured from the titles, as an attempt to “imitate the style,” of Fauré and Rachmaninoff. Even so, I find the titles not inappropriate. However, when I was trying to find an appropriate title for the set, “3 Hommages,” “3 Nocturnes,” and “3 Etudes,” all came to mind. Any of these titles, despite seeming contradictory, still seem appropriate to me. The combination of all three titles describe the nature of the works better for me than any one title does.

It is always something of a revelation when the composer is the performer, as is the case in this instance. And it is always something of a bafflement when a composer of such high quality and integrity as Robert Helps remains so “undiscovered,” known instead, in his lifetime, as a pianist.
(There are others throughout history, in very similar circumstances, who come to mind… )

The Token Creek Festival is mainly a collaborative space where like-minded individual artists come together to explore great works. Occasionally we present an outside group for a guest concert— Boston Museum Trio, Kepler Quartet, Second City viols, Open End Ensemble.
On their 2015 recital, the Lydian String Quartet offered Hyla’s third string quartet, composed for them in 1989, and a piece they retain – like most of the many works they’ve commissioned – in repertoire. Hyla’s compositional method often involves allowing a piece to blossom gradually from a single opening note, as here, and he includes all manner of soinc effects here, “from all-out rage to wisps of sound to moments of chugging rock rhythm.” This one movement work is bold, blunt, and forceful, with seemingly disparate parts held together with conviction.
Part humorous parody and part furious display of virtuosity, Lutoslawski’s theme and eleven variations, with an added twelfth variation and finale, pokes fun at the fact that even a nightclub audience will probably recognize the catchy tune from the 24th Caprice by Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840). Further humor derives from exploiting that the original Caprice serves the primary purpose of showcasing a catalogue of effects only playable on a violin. The pianists nonetheless mimic at least symbolically pizzicato, harmonics, double stops, and other effects proceeding moment to moment through each of the original variations, polychords, and other dissonant anachronisms ironically compensating for the faux instrumental character.
(Thanks to Gregg Wager, LA Phil, for this note)

In Another acre or so of being . . .” Michael Rose finds musical speech for one of his favorite writers, Guy Davenport—essayist, classicist, modernist scholar, artist, teacher, and Calvinist pagan. Rose took inspiration for the piece in this passage from the opening essay of Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination (“the most harmonious book I have ever read”):

The poet is at the edge of our consciousness of the world, finding beyond the suspected nothingness which we imagine limits our perception another acre or so of being worth our venturing upon. It is always difficult to know how much of the world the artist has taught us to see . . it is not things which poets give us but the way in which they exist for us.

“Another acre,” initially one movement of a larger work, Four Poetic Images, appeared on our recital/forum Paean to Place: Nature in Poetry & Music, an entire afternoon-thru-evening program (that included a picnic at the farm) that took inspiration from the poetry of Lorine Niedecker to explore interconnectedness of nature and art.

It was important, on the occasion of the Festival’s 25th anniversary in 2014, to commission a new piece to mark the occasion. There was no better composer to call upon than Jeffrey Stanek, who has been attending the festival since he was a young child, brought to our concerts by parents who early on recognized his musical appetite and aptitude. He went on to study piano and composition at Indiana University and at Tanglewood, has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, and is recipient of numerous awards and prizes in composition. When he returned to Wisconsin, we happily welcomed him to the Token Creek board. The Direction in Which the Wind the Moves, in its premiere performance that fittingly concludes our program, evokes the prairie landscape that is home to the Festival, and which was, specifically, the emphasis of much of our programming during a period when efforts at the farm were much engaged with ecological restoration projects and the inter-connectedness of nature and art. Stanek’s delicate music is highly pictorial in this tightly structured short work.