The Aston Magna Festival: As the Masters Intended
By Robert Burke Warren
Time travel is possible after all. But instead of spaceships or portals, the musicians of the Aston Magna music festival, at Bard for three Fridays in June and two in July, use period instruments to perform Baroque and Classical works as they were played in the days before massive symphonies and concert halls; alongside violins, clarinets, and trumpets, Aston Magna incorporates the theorbo, the chalumeau, the harpsichord, and the viola da gamba, the sounds of which will transport you from the 200-seat Olin Hall to another era.
“There’s a sense of discovery,” says violinist Daniel Stepner, longtime artistic director of Aston Magna, which is celebrating its 41st season. “There’s something revolutionary about getting back to original scale, because our lives are so supersized, and we’re used to such huge volumes and stimulation.” Aston Magna not only renders this music in its original form; according to Stepner, “Our mission is also to deepen the appreciation of the cultural milieu, and the political history surrounding its creation.”
To that last point, Stepner offers a lecture one hour before each performance, during which he’ll discuss not only the instruments and vocal techniques of Aston Magna, but also the times in which the pieces were conceived and performed: For “The Art of the Chalumeau,” on June 14th, Stepner will cover the history of this haunting precursor to the more strident clarinet, as well as the zeitgeist of the early 18th century, when most of the evening’s music was commissioned by aristocrats. “The performers,” Stepner says, “like Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart, were not aristocrats. None of the big composers were. But the aristocrats were very interested in poetry, music, and literature. They had time. And the composers became intellectuals in their own time through contact with the aristocracy; the music they composed was often done at court or a large room in a castle, with maybe 50 to 100 listeners. It was only in the Industrial Revolution, with the middle class rising, that concert halls were enlarged. As the middle class grew, the halls were made bigger and bigger, and the instruments changed, made more penetrating.”
The second concert, on June 21st, “J. S. Bach: The Six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord,” will feature Stepner himself on violin. Of Bach, Stepner says, “He was not a well-known composer in his time – an organist, teacher, and performer, yes, and a huge influence on Mozart and Beethoven. But his music wasn’t published until much, much later.”
More Bach will be on hand for the June 28 concert, “Masterworks by J. S. Bach and Marin Marais,” in which Aston Magna will revisit Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto; they are the first period musicians to have undertaken the piece with the theorbo, the viola da gamba, and baroque trumpet, as Bach would have envisioned it. Frenchman Marin Marais (at right), a rock star of the court in his day (he had 19 kids), was master of the cello-like viola da gamba, which sets him apart from the keyboard virtuosi in this festival. He would sooner recognize his deeply expressive, bass-heavy music at Aston Magna than anywhere else.
For “Shades of Love Lost – Madrigals of Monteverdi and Wert,” on July 5th, audiences will be treated to the drama of the madrigal, which arose in 16th century Florence and was, in part, funded by the Medicis. It would evolve into the operatic aria.
The festival closes on July 12th with the inspired “Music From the Library of Thomas Jefferson.” Turns out our third president wasn’t just a genius politician, architect, and horticulturist, but also a violinist and keyboard player. “He played violin regularly in Paris when he was ambassador,” says Stepner. “He bought several keyboard instruments for Monticello, including the new invention, the fortepiano. [Which evolved into the modern-day piano.] He cataloged his music library himself. He had lots of early Baroque, but also Haydn, Mozart and J.C. Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach’s son, the more famous Bach at that time.”
How do people who’ve never heard music played on period instruments react to Aston Magna? Says Stepner: “If they know the music, then hear how we play it, with period vocal techniques, they’re fascinated, sometimes bemused by the differences. The differences are in balance and timbre, you hear a difference in the texture of the piece. It appeals to many people because of the clarity. People are thrilled with the intimacy of the music presented in the kind of venue for which it was originally intended. We are not loud. The human ear homes in, though. One hears details and subtleties. That’s part of the attraction.”
The Aston Magna festival: A trip to a time when subtlety and detail were the order of the day, a reprieve from the ever-increasing racket of the 21st century. See you there.
Friday evenings, June 14, 21, and 28,
and July 5 and 12 at 8 p.m.
Bard’s Olin Hall
Advance tickets: $35 ($30/seniors)
Students with valid full-time student ID, or under the age of 25, may purchase up to two $5 student rush tickets on the day of the performance.
Also at The Daniel Arts Center at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, June 15 and The Mahaiwe, June 29, both in Great Barrington.