in: Reviews

June 23, 2012

Aston Magna Merely Pleasant at Bard

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Aston Magna’s annual concert series at Bard College’s Olin Hall has long seemed to me like an exercise in futility. Despite a stellar lineup of performers and interesting programs, these concerts seldom draw more than 100 listeners, as on Friday, June 22nd . The concert was preceded by interesting comments, from three of the musicians, about the composers, the works, and the instruments.

The mostly Mozart program began with the “Kegelstatt” Trio, K. 498, for clarinet, viola and piano. Guest fortepianist Malcolm Bilson was his usual sparkling self, and he added some modest embellishments to Mozart’s text as all historically informed players should do these days. Eric Hoeprich, a splendid clarinetist, played with exquisite clarity and nuance. But despite the balance advantages of the early instruments, violist David Miller was too reticent and his part wasn’t heard as well as it should have been.

Hoeprich went from collaborator to soloist in Franz Krommer’s Quartet in B Flat, Op. 83, for clarinet and string trio. Unlike Mozart’s use of the clarinet as “first among equals,” Krommer wrote a virtuoso clarinet piece with string accompaniment. I found the first movement of this work rather pedestrian, but it gained more inspiration in the later movements, most notably in the Andante, which also featured the most integrated texture. Krommer was an excellent craftsman but as the contrast with Mozart demonstrates he was not a genius. Oddly, Miller’s viola was more audible in this work.

The concert concluded with Mozart’s longest instrumental work (a fact oddly omitted in the pre-concert talk and the program notes), the “Gran Partita,” K. 361. I suppose I’m glad to know that the minor composer Christian Schwenke (1767-1822) made an arrangement of this work for oboe, string trio, and piano. Other than pointing out the popularity of this music shortly after Mozart’s death, the significance of this transcription escapes me. Schwenke did manage to keep the content of the work more or less intact. (He added a trio to one of the minuets, perhaps his own work.) But the audacious, sparkling color of Mozart’s original scoring for twelve winds and double-bass is largely nullified in this arrangement. And there were several passages which seemed to me to have resulted from the kind of arranger-thinking that goes, “Gee, I have a lot of notes to include here and not enough instruments. Better give them to the piano.”

This performance was a bit more uneven and less well-coordinated than the remainder of the program, and the viola was again too modest. But I greatly enjoyed the dancy quality of the minuets, Bilson’s little (improvised?) piano cadenza in the first movement, and the generally fine spirit and musicianship that pervaded the music throughout. The oboist, superb as always, was Stephen Hammer; other string players were violinist and Aston Magna director Daniel Stepner and cellist Loretta O’Sullivan, both in their usual fine form.

This was not one of those Aston Magna concerts that I leave wishing I had a recording of it to play in the car while driving home. But it was still a worthwhile and pleasing evening, and deserved a far better turnout than it received.

Leslie Gerber lives in Woodstock, New York. He has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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