At the risk of repeating myself, I must once again give my best praise to Aston Magna’s concert, “Dueling Violins, Genial Gambas,” on June 30 at Saint James Place in Great Barrington. Though I am not on the lookout for poor performances from anyone, I am continually amazed at the high level of the participating artists in this group. The style has become an easy, normal thing, speaking clearly to us centuries later in large part because of the ease these wonderful players show.
What is best in Aston Magna’s concerts is a complete lack of pretension, whether it is Daniel Stepner’s quiet erudition or the singing of soprano Dominique Labelle, who shows an almost childlike identification with the music she sings, this requiring of course, a superb technique. The players take pleasure in the style which they have mastered so completely. It doesn’t proselytize or force anything on you. We are a family, privileged to hear some of the greatest music there is.
When I try to imagine how Lee Elman and Albert Fuller felt when they founded the Aston Magna Music Festival in 1972, I find myself somewhat awestruck. That was less than twenty years away from the very beginnings of the Early Music movement in the mid-1950s. When the invaluable Pristine Classical download site form historical recordings recently released Jascha Horenstein’s 1954 recording of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, a noted by Mischa Horenstein observed that the orchestra, assembled ad hoc in Vienna by Horenstein himself, included two great lights of historical performance, Nicolaus Harnoncourt, playing the viola da gamba, and Paul Angerer, playing viola solo, violino piccolo, harpsichord, and second recorder, in true Early Music style.
This spring has been teeming with a dizzying profusion of riches for the lover of early music in the Northeast. In April Carnegie Hall launched “Before Bach,” a month-long festival of Renaissance and Baroque music performed by the the most admired international groups and soloists in the field. Since this was an “on” year for The Boston Early Music Festival, an equally distinguished group of regulars and visitors just now packed about the same amount of musical activity into a week, supplemented by hosts of mostly outstanding comprimarii in its Fringe. This coming weekend BEMF’s western coda, consisting of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 and his Orfeo, both performed in the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, will overlap with the first weekend of one of the oldest festivals of early music, Aston Magna.
This was a marvelous concert. It had plenitude; there was abundance in it. It was partly the thought-out programming, as always with Dan Stepner’s concerts. But it was also the richness of experience, the ease of it. The viola da gamba gives the sense that around the straight narrowness of the tone, there is something else, full of suggestion. The instrument itself conjures you into listening twice—first to the actual sound, and then, almost against your will, to something else it puts into the room. The viol always seems a private confidant. I have heard Laura Jeppesen perform a great many times, and her playing on this occasion was more fluent than ever, and spoke intimate truth. It made a pact with the listener, a faith that something important was being said.
Reluctant to miss an opportunity to hear the great clarinettist Eric Hoeprich, especially after his sensitively nuanced performance of Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio for the Boston Early Music Festival, I found it necessary, unfortunately, to miss an important BEMF evening in order to make the trek out to Brandeis. Daniel Stepner in fact apologized for the conflict, promising to avoid them in the future. Indeed, it would be to the advantage of Boston audiences if the two festivals could pool their resources to make it possible for BEMF audiences to hear the Aston Magna musicians, especially this one, devoted to a rarely heard, obsolete elder sibling of the clarinet, the chalumeau.
Something about Williamstown Theatre Festival’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” just didn’t click for me. It was not for lack of ideas — several clever, a couple brilliant. It was the flow. I noticed it right away when the stage couldn’t seem to set up a rhythm with the laughter in the house. When a comedy is really cooking, a rhythm sets up. It’s a kind of play, this back and forth. When it is really good, it has a naturalness, even an inevitability. That did not happen in the performance I heard (July 4). Lines were often lost in the laughter; the house was often slow to respond, and once in a while the response seemed forced.
Like all the great institutions which are celebrating anniversaries this year, Aston Magna’s 40th anniversary season is much like any other. What better way to celebrate an important anniversary than to maintain the quality one has been known for and to reaffirm the founding principles? This year’s season, launched by gala events at Brandeis and at Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, will be rich in familiar repertory — Monteverdi, Purcell, Vivaldi, Telemann, the Bach family, and Mozart — and familiar faces: the violinist Daniel Stepner, the gambist Laura Jeppesen, harpsichordist John Gibbons, singers Dominique Labelle, Deborah Rentz-Moore, and William Hite. Of course Stanley Ritchie will be on hand. Some very distinguished artists will be joining them: keyboard players Peter Sykes and Malcom Bilson, and Eric Hoeprich, whose Glossa recording of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto I just now warmly praised in a review article—and this is only a few.