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Aston Magna Shows Jefferson’s Tastes


Dan Stepner (file photo)
Dan Stepner (file photo)

Aston Magna presented a remarkable concert on Thursday at Brandeis University’s Slosberg Hall featuring music from the collection of Thomas Jefferson with Daniel Stepner violin, Sharon Baker soprano and Michael Sponseller harpsichord.  Lay aside for a moment the idea that a political figure would have not only the knowledge and cultural awareness to collect music, and imagine any of our contemporary politicians being an accomplished violinist who practiced up to 3 hours a day, as Jefferson did. The mind boggles. Jefferson’s intellectual curiosity in other areas is well known, but the breadth of his collection, as illustrated by this concert, points out what a truly amazing man he must have been.

The concert opened with three pieces from the Art of Playing the Violin, No. 9 Andante moderato, No. 10 Allegro moderato, and no. 11 Allegro vivace by Francesco Geminiani.  All 3 pieces were in b minor, and demonstrate various technical aspects of playing the violin, all ably handled by Daniel Stepner and Michael Sponseller. These were charming little etudes, very musical, with No. 10 being particularly Bach-like in its use of chords and double stops.

The next work, three songs by Francis Hopkinson (1737- 1791), lays claim to being the first piece of music published in the brand new United States by a “native of the United States” (he was born in Philadelphia), with the work dedicated to His Excellency George Washington. Hopkinson, who was a delegate to the 2nd Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence, sent a dedicatory copy to Jefferson as well.  These songs, while not profound, were delightful, the kind sung by young ladies after dinner to entertain the guests. Sharon Baker’s fresh and graceful soprano lent them even more charm.

The next work, Pieces de clavecin, 1759 by Claude-Benigne Balbastre, was a mini-tour-de-force for harpsichord. In addition to teaching organ to Jefferson’s daughter and Marie Antoinette, Balbastre was such a rock star of his day that his performances at Midnight Mass eventually had to be stopped because they drew such crowds.

Sharon Baker (file photo)
Sharon Baker (file photo)

Next were two songs by Maria Hadfield Cosway, a personal friend of Jefferson who was primarily a painter, and the spouse of a painter. The depth of the relationship between Jefferson and Cosway is not completely known, but they were most definitely taken with each other, to the point that Jefferson wrote a poignant and lengthy letter, the “Dialogue between the Head and the Heart,” upon their parting, from which Daniel Stepner read some excerpts. Hot stuff! Cosway’s songs, accomplished and quite interesting, were sent to Jefferson after, it seems, his interest had cooled. They are laments to a friend who is no longer enamored. Musically, they make some quite interesting harmonic shifts, including a sensual chromatic scale back to the verse in “Ogni dolce aura che spira”. My guess is that the relationship was not entirely chaste.

The concert continued with two excerpts from Orpheus Brittanicus by Henry Purcell, illustrating the difference between driving in a Hyundai and a BMW. The works to this point had been perfectly delightful, but here was the work of a master. Baker’s ornamentation was perfection.

After intermission, 4 parlor songs by Thomas Arne, “Ariel’s Song”  from The Tempest, “The Complaint,” “Cloe Generous as Fair” and “Love and Wine in Alliance” were again charming little historical nuggets. The violin sometimes added dialogue, sometimes harmony.  The last of the set was a raucous drinking song about Phillis whose lips cause the wine to sparkle, and whose wine causes her eyes to sparkle… puts Amy Winehouse to shame.

Michael Sponseller (file photo)
Michael Sponseller (file photo)

Johann Schobert’s Sonata in D Minor Op. 14 No. 4 for keyboard with accompaniment of a violin was just that. One is used to thinking of a sonata for these two instruments to be a showpiece for the violin with the keyboard as the accompanist, but here the reverse was true.  The violin part would have been easily playable by Jefferson, and it was fun to imagine him doing so.

Three arias, “The Turtle thus the plaintive crying” from The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay, “Batti, batti” from Don Giovanni by Mozart, and ”Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen” by C.M. von Weber concluded the concert. Baker’s rendering of Zerlina’s aria was so fine that it invoked a smattering of applause before the conclusion of the set.

All in all, a delightful historical excursion, no dry dusty exercise. Bravo to Aston Magna for an intriguing concept superbly executed.

Elisa Birdseye, executive director of the Boston Chamber Ensemble, is an active freelance violist and principal violist of the New Bedford Symphony. Additionally, she has worked as the general manager of the New England Philharmonic and Boston Musica Viva.

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