Aston Magna’s distinguished history of 40 years of musical probity is being celebrated this season under Daniel Stepner’s inspiring artistic direction [since 1990], but even he could not have planned the drama that unfolded — happily, as it turned out — this past Thursday, June 14th on Brandeis University’s Slossberg Auditorium’s stage. The concert repeated Friday, June 15th at Olin Auditorium, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, and Saturday, June 16th at the Daniel Arts Center, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
A program insert informed the audience that the evening’s planned soprano soloist Dominique Labelle had been forced to withdraw due to illness, and that Kristen Watson would take her place. Watson, who has of late been the go-to soprano when last-minute substitutions befall, had all of 24 hours to prepare two extremely demanding works she had never sung before: Heitor Villa-Lobos’s mesmerizing Bachiana Brasileira No. 5, and J.S. Bach’s nigh-perfect masterpiece Wedding Cantata, BWV 202. That Watson succeeded so well was a tribute to her plucky nature of never backing away from a challenge, but more importantly to the deep professionalism and devotion to artful musicianship that she always brings to her performances.
Watson had been heard to wonderful effect only a week prior in Aston Magna’s opening concert in its 40th Anniversary celebratory season. There she adroitly performed Monteverdi, Purcell, and Handel (BMInt review here). So when Labelle became suddenly indisposed, Stepner knew whom he could call.
The program had originally been planned as “Music of Three Bachs and Villa-Lobos,” but Johann Christoph Bach’s Lamento: “Ach, daß ich Wassers g’nug hätte” had to be omitted due to circumstances. Though one would have enjoyed hearing this 1999 Christoph Wolff discovery (in Kiev, remarkably), the concert did not suffer from its omission. So, we were down to “…Two Bachs…”: Johann Sebastian, and his son, Wilhelm Friedemann. The latter’s Duo for Two Violins opened the evening, and it was a slightly tough opener with highly exposed instrumental lines and closely imitative counterpoint that demanded dead-on tuning from the Baroque fiddles played by Stepner and his colleague Nancy Wilson. The performance was musical and involved, though I confess that it was only the third movement — a rather fleet Allegro — where players and the musical score seemed most at home with one another. The program note indicated that the music had been written for treble instruments, probably flutes, and not necessarily violins. It would be interesting to hear that combination of wind sonorities in this music, but I was grateful to experience this pleasant version offered by Stepner and Wilson.
Next up was another novelty — a reconstruction of a possible J. S. Bach concerto for oboe in E-flat major, music from which was likely later incorporated in that composer’s E-major Concerto for Keyboard BWV 1053. Joshua Rifkin and Werner Breig were the reconstructionists. The redoubtable Stephen Hammer was the imperturbable Baroque Oboe soloist. I use this term purposely, as the demands on Hammer, whether by Bach or Messrs. Rifkin and Breig, were considerable. Stepner and colleagues Wilson, violist David Miller, cellist Loretta O’Sullivan, Anne Trout, playing violone, and Catherine Liddell, lute, formed the accompanying band. Lively tempi and nicely shaped phrasing from all participants enhanced the reading of this somewhat unusual hybrid of a piece. Hammer was the master of all he was asked to play, including several rather unusually chromatic excursions in the Concerto’s third movement. While not all of this reconstruction works quite as effortlessly and seamlessly as a finished work by J. S. Bach (what could?), one was grateful for the opportunity to hear artists of this caliber offer this music to us.
Kristen Watson, gowned in an exquisite, shimmering sheath bedecked with colorful butterflies, then arrived on stage for Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Bachiana Brasileira No. 5 for Eight Violoncellos and Soprano, his most familiar composition. But, where were the eight ‘cellos? In their place were two violins, and one each viola, ‘cello, and contrabass. How would this work? While the accompanying sonorities were certainly different from the original, this artful arrangement by Daniel Stepner (modestly unattributed in the program book) worked ingeniously well, supplying plenty of color and exoticism, with violins and viola often employing strummed and plucked pizzicatti and held guitar-style in the laps of their players. Ms. Watson sang the opening Cantilena radiantly and seductively, employing a gorgeously shimmering mezza-voce when the sinuous opening melody returns at the aria’s close. Equally remarkable was her mastery of the rapid-fire Portuguese in the lively Dansa (Martelo) second movement. Not only were her pitches dead-on in this fleet and vocally demanding music that trips and dances up and down the musical staff, but her exposition of the language was clear and confident. All this for having seen this music for the first time only 24 hours or so earlier! The audience erupted with well-deserved bravas at the end, echoed by the smiling faces and applause from her accompanying musicians.
After intermission an ensemble of violins, viola, oboe, cello, and theorbo offered an intriguing look into J. S. Bach’s “mental workshop.” In his pre-concert talk, Stepner told his listeners that Bach’s personal score of the Goldberg Variations —which had been discovered in Paris in 1974 — contained a loose sheet of manuscript paper that had written on it, in Bach’s hand, 14 canons based on the first eight notes of the bass line of the Goldberg’s theme. Stepner and colleagues then offered a strung-together presentation of these canons, one after the other, some repeated, some not. Bach’s canons run the gamut of genius, offering their musical lines played forward, backward, upside down, or all of these at once. And after the 14th canon, Bach apparently wrote “usw” (and so on…). This interesting glimpse of Bach “at work” that reinforced the composer’s reputation for ever-inquiring intellect was edifying to hear.
Watson then reappeared on stage for J. S. Bach’s exquisite Wedding Cantata, BWV 202. Her accompanying ensemble was the same as for the canons, but augmented with violone. Once again one was struck by the sheer perfection of the writing in this music. From beginning to end, this remarkable composition offers up jewel after musical jewel. Watson was in fine form yet again, offering clear and compelling tone to each of her arias and recitatives, abetted by clearly enunciated German language. Her musical cohorts were solo oboist Hammer and violinist Stepner, both playing with beauty of tone and intelligence of improvisation. And in the aria which tells of Phoebus hurrying with swift steeds through the newborn world, ‘cellist Loretta O’Sullivan enthusiastically provided the galloping accompaniment. After the concert, Watson told me that this was also her first performance ever of the Wedding Cantata. Here was true derring-do under pressure.
Tribute is due to all the Aston Magna musicians for making this demanding and ultimately rewarding program the considerable success it was. May their future 40th anniversary concerts be equally wonderful, but perhaps with a bit less last-minute drama!