in: Reviews

June 24, 2011

Aston Magna’s Diversions, Delights

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Few things in the musical world remain absolute mysteries to me, and yet I am utterly mystified by how one plays a natural horn. I have read up on the subject and may understand the theory behind it, but actually performing on the natural horn strikes me as a superhuman feat. So I am in utter awe of last night’s natural horn players, Richard Menaul and Frederick Aldrich. Relying solely on embouchure, breath control, and hand-stopping – no valves — they made beautiful music with a grace and ease that surely must belie the training and effort involved. And do so with grace and wit! More startling is to perform the music of Mozart, so well known and so crystalline that there is hardly any place to hide (rare enough for horns, anyway). Both players are masters of their art; Menaul must be especially commended for his solo turn in the evening’s opening quintet.

Last night’s (June 23) offering by Aston Magna, a period instrument group, included chamber music for strings and winds composed by Mozart and Hummel, performed in Slosberg Auditorium, Brandeis University. The concert began with Mozart’s Quintet in E-flat, K. 407, for horn, violins, viola, and cello. Joining Menaul were violinist Daniel Stepner playing viola, second violist David Miller, violinist Julie Leven, and cellist Loretta O’Sullivan. The crisp articulation and tight ensemble playing produced a lively conversation among the instrumentalists. It was a good beginning to a lovely evening of music. I would have liked to hear more of the second viola line here; from my center-front seats, Julie Leven on violin came across more prominently than the other players, adding weight to the surrounding lightness. I hope future performances in other halls can resolve this imbalance, the evening’s only shortcoming.

The roster of musicians still offered a tight reading of Mozart’s Divertimento in D, K. 251, for oboe (Stephen Hammer), two horns, a quartet of strings (Stepner now on violin), plus double bass (Anne Trout). More closely numbering a chamber orchestra, this work danced and sparkled. The Rondeau stood out for its beauty and cohesion among the performers.

Hummel’s Quartet in E-flat for clarinet (Eric Hoeprich), violin, viola, and cello brought new timbres to the evening. Although a challenge to perform, especially the second movement La Seccatura (known as “the nuisance” for each part being written in a different time signature), this was a joyous and scintillating reading that bounced along smoothly, played with panache by all.

Finally, Mozart’s Divertimento in F, K. 527 (‘A Musical Joke’), a wonderful piece of levity calling for a heightened sense of comic timing, that for all the comedy embodied in this piece, is a difficult work to perform as intended. The musicians’ concentration was palpable, and their earnest seriousness added to the joke so that their redoubled efforts were amply repaid. I cannot help wondering if Mozart’s joke is not on the musicians performing this piece: all the skill and concentration that go into playing this Divertimento as written results in music that sounds like we all did when we were first starting out on our respective instruments!

A delight of the Aston Magna concerts is hearing familiar music performed on period instruments in a manner closer to original performance. The natural horns offer a different array of tonal colors than do modern, valved, horns, and this highlights different musical aspects. Similarly the more rounded sounds of classical oboe and classical clarinet blend more with strings than do their modern counterparts. Hearing these pieces performed on period instruments, I am struck by the happy and harmonious marriage among strings and woodwinds, and the darker coloration throughout.

Finally, I commend Daniel Stepner on the inspired programming choice of the Hummel quartet: it highlights the skills of the individual players and the mission of Aston Magna as it points forward to later nineteenth-century developments in instruments and performance. The longer coda in the Andante movement demonstrate Hummel pressing against the performance possibilities and capabilities of his time, laying groundwork for the greater depth and weight of later-nineteenth-century music.

This concert will be reprised June 24 at The Olin Auditorium, Bard College, Annandale-On-Hudson, NY and June 25 at, The Daniel Arts Center, Simon’s Rock College, Great Barrington, MA. Aston Magna performs six concerts in June and early July at each of these locations.

Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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