IN: Reviews

Aston Magna’s 17th Century English Songs


Dan Stepner and Peter Sykes (Andrew Sammut photo)
Dan Stepner and Peter Sykes (Andrew Sammut photo)

A steamy Thursday evening: July 3. Walking through the swaths of juxtaposed 1960s architecture on the campus of Brandeis University, one got a sense of a world gone missing, a remnant of the past. A moment went by where the air around me sighed, welcoming the only person it has seen in weeks. Where were the people? Where was the concert on this deserted campus? Slosberg Auditorium offered an approaching oasis of vehicles and lights beckoning with cool relief.

Aston Magna, America’s longest running summer festival of early music on period instruments, founded by Lee Elman, now carried on by Artistic Director Daniel Stepner, explored a “turbulent” England in the 17th century. The nation was conflicted as to how it should be governed, marred with the execution and exiling of Kings Charles I and II, and for a short period of time was ruled by the Commonwealth. Tumultuous times bring about creative spirit, and this concert exposed such a refuge: a dash of humor with the deep cut of despair.

Giving only a glance of the 17th century English song, a musical coup d’oeil of sorts, this program was gathered into sets and neatly organized. The message was a mixture of sorrow and delight, exhilaration and introspection, all with the subconscious of political and social discomfort. The sounds that emanated were caste by a chamber ensemble: two vocalists, two Baroque violins, a viola da gamba, lute/theorbo, and a portative organ. Great subtlety could be provided with this makeup; the melodic contour was served well, whether flowing in free lamenting form or composed of short motivic interests, stacked and displayed.

Well versed in their period practices the musicians spoke the language fluidly. Communication across the ensemble was impeccable, relying on aural sensation rather than visual presentation. With that said, visually the stage was stagnant, lacking in any real narrative power or awareness, the musicians hardly glancing toward one another in any natural way. Nevertheless, the vocalists knew the subtleties and nuance of the drama very well, as if they were orating rather than singing. Mezzo-soprano Deborah Rentz-Moore showed command coupled with a shape shifting ability to change between an almost lounge sound to the purest of Baroque flutes. Her upper range flew with clarity and precision while her lower range dredged a deep basket to hold the sound:I have never heard anything so compelling than Rentz-Moore’s drop into the depths of her sound, may I say (with all due respect) it was sexy! David Ripley conveyed the texts completely, grasping our attention through nuanced speech. His enunciation was impeccable as well, but his tone at times seemed to lack a foundation, especially considering what we remember of his vocal career, yet his artistry remained.

The instrumentalists were pure gold. There was worry at the onset as Catherine Liddell gave a less than convincing start with Dowland’s The Lady Rich’s Galliard, a solo work for lute. Though, as the evening progressed she gave a nuanced performance, plucking the theorbo’s pointed sound throughout the harmonic and melodic structure. Laura Jeppesen, viola da gambaist, was perhaps the most compelling musician of the evening. The contact she was able to make with her instrument seemed second nature, allowing the gamba’s metallic quality to ring through the musical texture. Peter Sykes: a blessing to this community, confident and forward thinking, his fingers grasp the keys with an awareness akin to an athlete, fluid and concise. The Baroque violinists Daniel Stepner and Danielle Maddon brought the space a musical contour that was otherwise lacking; period instruments can only handle so much dynamic contrast. The two seemed connected while offering two characteristically different perspectives.

The first set showed the greats John Dowland and Henry Purcell to brilliant effect. John Blow showed up later on with his death ode to Mr. Purcell. The brothers William and Henry Lawes occupied a portion of the first half: not as recognizable as the others but equally as satisfying. The two lesser-known composers Nicolas Lanier and Tobias Hume provided seamless bridge material, linking the overall narrative between sets.

Early in the program Nicolas Lanier’s I prithee keep my sheep for me was delightful, charming and dramatic. This vocal duet featured the whole ensemble in a young man’s quest for a kiss (a theme that returns later in the program). The Lawes brothers vocal set was uplifting and charming, perhaps in an uncanny fashion as it comes shortly after the sorrowful sounds of John Dowland who was known for his lamenting lute tunes. The Lawes set concluded with William Lawes’s Sonata for two violins, bass viol and organ. What a treat: a well-balanced musical meal of touching, soft, and gentle sounds from Stepner and Maddon, conjuring up beautifully expressive phrasing. The first half of the concert concluded with the Purcell song Fairest Isle, which bears a striking similarity to the great hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling;” the connection could be tenuous but it was striking nonetheless.

A shorter second half began with a highlight of the concert, Purcell’s Ciacona (Trio Sonata) in G Minor; an assured and compelling emotional release with great expression in the violins and viola da gamba. John Blow’s Ode on the Death of Henry Purcell was an interesting drama that allowed odd musical occurrences such as sudden character changes between stanzas, stuttering repetition of text, and dramatic melodic material. The concert closed with Purcell’s Dialogue between Coridon and Mopsa, a humorous quest for a kiss. Not in vain, Rentz-Moore took on a quasi-30’s lounge-singer-style, scooping at a nasal tone. In their single act of dramatic depiction, the vocalists chased each other off the stage in a final effort to obtain that kiss. The Dialogue was a fine way to end the evening.

This concert depicted an extension of the great Renaissance tradition of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. The melodies were sweet, catchy and snappy; often taking the form of motivic units, these short ideas blend easily together in an almost folk style fashion. Other melodic material took shape of chromatic lament, a longing descent toward despair. Some of the music took on a quasi-recitative style, an almost story telling quest, caring less of its musical outcome than its narrative quest, all this in an effort to portray a lover’s remorse, a nation’s woes, and a youthful vigor for romantic involvement.

Overall, the musicians of Aston Magna produced a fine program, an intimate experience with humor and introspection. However, with musical prowess aside, there was a fact about the audience demographic that was concerning. With the exception of this young writer and very few others, the audience was of a “mature” sort, even though no one had announced to my knowledge that this event was only suitable for mature audiences. We hope that Aston Magna will be able to embrace a new generation before it is also mature.

Samuel Kjellberg is a Minneapolis-Saint Paul native; conductor, percussionist, and vocalist, all with a dash of philosophy, he currently resides in Boston while pursuing a MM in Choral Conducting at Boston University.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. My experience, musically, reflects closely that of Mr. Kjellberg. Only his first paragraph(s) jarred.
    From Row E, center, it was obvious that ALL the musicians were in visual contact with one another: no
    grimacing and gesturing, just simple glances and nods as needed. And, as he says, their unanimity was audible.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — July 6, 2014 at 7:11 pm

  2. Dear Mr Cohn,
    Thank you for this observation. Maybe this is the moment to air the topic of “mugging” for the audience. Our visual culture has put pressure on musicians to engage the listener with extra-musical facial expressions and gestures. I have watched the encroachment of this television-inspired syndrome and have participated in many performances in which theatricality—often requested by directors and managers—has little to do with the musical needs of the moment. Historically informed performances are being trumped by the histrionically informed.
    Laura Jeppesen

    Comment by Laura Jeppesen — July 8, 2014 at 9:28 am

  3. As a concert-goer who closes his eyes much of the time, I agree with Laura that platform histrionics should be saved for opera. And often the most visually demonstrative are sonically bland. A recent reviewer of the Claremont Trio deplored the threesome’s visual exuberance:

    But if we hear the swoon as well as see it, well, that may be ok. And it’s more than just ok for artists to be pleasant to gaze upon.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — July 8, 2014 at 9:46 am

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