The 42-year-old Aston Magna Festival will begin its current season with a tribute to a father-son relationship. According to artistic director and violinist Daniel Stepner, Carl Philip Emanuel Bach (whose 300th birthday has come this year) inherited his father’s bent for improvisation and colorful instrumentation, even as he cut a path into the new, clarified world of the galant. Father J.S. paid tribute to these new trends, even while stretching his dazzling contrapuntal gifts, in his Musical Offering, composed after a trip to visit C.P.E.’s employer and patron, Frederick the Great. The first program, at Brandeis’s Slosberg Hall on June 19th commences with three varied chamber works of the son, including a sonata for bass recorder, viola and continuo. The second half is devoted to the father’s entire Musical Offering, featuring baroque instruments with fortepiano, as J.S. played during that storied impromptu performance at Frederick’s court. Instrumentalists include Christopher Krueger; flutes, Anne Black and Daniel Stepner, violas and violins; Laura Jeppesen, gamba; and Peter Sykes, fortepiano.
BMInt: Before giving us the details about the rest of your season how about answering some general questions? Here’s the first. How doctrinaire is your approach to early music?
DS: Hopefully our approach is not doctrinaire, but informed. There are too many historical variables to know positively how things were done, especially in the area of the divergent human personalities that created and first played the music we play. What we do know something about: instruments, vocal and instrumental techniques, string gauges, bows, performing venues, pitch levels, temperaments, etc. What is continually exciting about early music (which gets both earlier and later with the advance of time) is the imagination we must bring to performing it, because of and despite more information and music being uncovered. We need to know something of the culture into which the music was born, about the instruments of the time, and about the personality and circumstances of the composers. These are intangibles which make performing early music an educational challenge as well as a pleasure.
Do you always play period instruments?
Yes we play with period instruments — that’s one of the givens. But that might mean modern copies of antiques as well as antiques; and it might mean, for instance, a different violin for Bach than for Mozart or even for Vivaldi.
Over our 44 years, we have employed some 85 string players, 30 keyboard players, 56 wind players, 50 singers and 12 dancers — a total of 233 professionals. Then there are the hundreds of participants — both amateurs and professionals — at our thirteen interdisciplinary academies and workshops.
The focus has been on chamber music, both vocal and instrumental.
What’s your feeling about vibrato?
Vibrato — yes! but as a conscious ornament, ideally and not a constant sugar coating. There is reference to vibrato—both vocal and instrumental—in most method books from the 17th and 18th centuries. But often those valuable windows into performance practice warn against its excessive use. Today as well, vibrato is the performer’s option. Whether it seems appropriate is a matter of taste — both the performer’s and the listener’s.
And will we hear juicy phrasing?
Juicy phrasing? Not sure what this means, but I personally think that Monteverdi, Bach, Vivaldi and their peers call for the full range of intensity expression—swooning at times and with restraint at others. I think the label romantic is sometimes an unfortunate mitigator of expression in music not considered of the Romantic era. The problem in all music is to find the right degree of volume, vibrato, rubato, and other variables — so that the music seems natural and speaks to the listener in a convincing way.
Are there right and wrong auditoriums for this music?
The right venue plays an important role as well. We perform usually in small auditoriums (150-300 seats), which suit our instruments and our “message” much better than halls meant for symphony orchestras. Stone churches or high-ceilinged rooms with stone floors are often our favorite spaces because of the natural reverberation. Large living rooms can also be wonderful venues for our smaller scale programs.
The Slosberg Auditorium, the site of our local performances, has some of the sound qualities of an 18th-century drawing room. With its seats rising steadily to the back of the hall, it is a good space, both sonically and visually, for chamber music, vocal music, and even a small orchestra. Its sound is honest, clear and supportively resonant without being boomy. The sound carries nicely to the back of the hall, so that it doesn’t feel distant in the top rows.
Now go on please about the rest of your season.
In the second program, we continue to explore the development of music for wind instruments with a program of Finnish composer Bernhard Crusell (an oboe quintet, featuring Stephen Hammer), Mendelssohn (his daring Op. 13 string quartet), and Brahms (the Clarinet Quintet, featuring Eric Hoeprich on period clarinet).
These first two programs run parallel to Aston Magna/Brandeis workshops on the Brandeis campus.
Music from a troubled 17th-century Britain constitutes our third program. Vocal and instrumental music by the John Dowland, the Lawes brothers, Nicholas Lanier, John Blow and Henry Purcell (catches, songs, sonatas), sung by Deborah Rentz-Moore and David Ripley, supported by strings lute and organ (Peter Sykes).
The fourth, signature program this season, “Vice Squad,” explores the many facets of early vocal and instrumental responses to tobacco, alcohol, coffee and love. This program begins with the late 14th-century French motet “Fumeux Fume” – a bleary evocation of getting high long before smoking tobacco was introduce to Europe. Henry Purcell’s many send-ups of an alcoholic culture are featured, along with Bach’s “Coffee Cantata,” excerpts from his “Amore traditore” and his arietta “Edifying Thoughts of a Tobacco Smoker.” There are also topically appropriate entries by Rameau, Bernier, Vivaldi, Hume and Arne. Singers Teresa Wakim, Frank Kelley and Jesse Blumberg will be joined by a small baroque orchestra.
The fifth and final program features a survey of two centuries of Italian trio sonatas – including music by Castello, Marini, Vivaldi, Mazzaferata, Stradella, Corelli, Pernucio (J) –plus a brand new work, “Aston Magna,” by Nico Muhly, commissioned by Aston Magna co-founder Lee Elman, celebrating his Great Barrington estate (“Aston Magna”), where the festival began more than four decades ago. Violinists Daniel Stepner and Joan Plana, viola da gambist Laura Jeppesen and harpsichordist Michael Sponseller.
Each of the five programs will be performed at Brandeis University’s Slosberg Auditorium (Thursdays beginning June 19), at Bard College’s Olin Hall (Fridays beginning June 20) and at Simon’s Rock College in Great Barrington (Saturdays beginning June 21). Detailed information can be found here.
At Brandeis: June 19, 26, July 3, 10, 17
At Bard: June 20, 27, July 4, 11, 18
At Simon’s Rock College: June 21, 28, July 5 and 19th
At the Mahaiwe Theater in Great Barrington: July 12