The Aston Magna Festival and Foundation will be celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer. In the meantime, a special Schubertiade celebrating the 30th anniversary of Daniel Stepner’s ascension to Artistic Directorship will offer feature the master’s String Trio in B Flat, D. 471, Moments Musicaux, D. 780,nos. 2 and 5, Sonata (“Arpeggione”), D. 821, Quintet in A Major (“The Trout”), D. 667 on May 2oth at Newton’s Allen Center and on May 21st at 3:00 at Saint James Place Great Barrington. Tickets HERE.
Stepner shared his thoughts with the Intelligencer last December.
BMInt: Congratulations Dan on your 30 years directing Aston Magna! Wonderful to hear that Aston Magna will celebrate its 50th next summer!
Thank you! Time flies when you’re having fun, and it is hardly believable to me that it’s been 30 years.
Were you involved in the birth of Aston Magna?
No, but I attended a concert during their second season (1973) and was coached privately by Stanley Ritchie and Jaap Schröder that summer. I remember well hearing them play a blistering Leclair duo on baroque violins. Also on that concert: Carole Bogard singing “Pur ti miro” from “The Coronation of Poppea.” I was blown away. The co-founder, Albert Fuller, was playing harpsichord and Freddie Aricco cello.
Was that your initiation into the world of period instruments?
Actually, no. As an undergrad I had a wonderful teacher — the Canadian Steven Staryk, concertmaster then of the Chicago Symphony — who lent me a baroque bow. In those years at Northwestern University, my fellow student Laurence Libin organized a performance of Machaut’s Mass, in which I sang tenor; we were accompanied by various period instruments: sackbuts, organ, recorders and lute. Laurie introduced me to the recordings of Alfred Deller, which was a revelation to me. Laurie would later become the curator of musical instruments at the Metropolitan Museum in New York; this gave me the opportunity to perform and record on the restored “Gould” Stradivarius, in the Met collection. During my graduate studies at Yale, I played an 18th-century Baroque violin from the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments. My girlfriend at the time (my wife, Laura Jeppesen) was experimenting with a 17th-century viola da gamba from the Collection. In those days we could actually take them out to our dorm rooms to practice! We had already heard the Alarius Ensemble, a Belgian group, on a concert series at Yale, and we were seduced by their musical approach, their sound, and by the world of early Baroque music they opened for us.
So how did Aston Magna come to your attention?
Some of our fellow students were aware of the experimentation going on in Europe and some of the echoes over here, across the pond. Aston Magna was one of the first such attempts at a concert series that was also a teaching laboratory. Juilliard faculty member Albert Fuller, along with music-lover Lee Elman, founded the series on Elman’s property in Great Barrington, “Aston Magna.” Therein lies a story worth telling.
Aston Magna is the name of a hamlet in the Cotswolds in England where the well-known American violinist Albert Spalding (1888-1954) used to vacation with his wife between European tours. Spalding’s father and uncle founded the Spalding sporting goods empire [I had a Spalding baseball mitt as a kid!], but son Albert took to the violin, was trained rigorously in Europe, and embarked on a 40-year career as a soloist. He and Maud Powell were the first American violinists to make successful international careers. Spalding also served in U.S. military intelligence in both world wars! He left a number of fine recordings, available now on YouTube. He wrote a fascinating, literate memoir (“Rise to Follow”) and a romantic novel (“A Fiddle, a Lady, and a Sword”), both of which I recommend heartily. He also composed, and we are playing his String Quartet in E Minor (1925) on our house concert series this season.
In the 1920s, Spalding and his wife bought a magnificent hilltop property in Great Barrington and dubbed it Aston Magna, after their favorite English hideaway. He died in 1953; his widow lived there until 1970, when Lee Elman bought it from the Spalding estate. On the property is a free-standing studio Spalding had specially built for practicing and chamber concerts. It has a high, rounded, cathedral ceiling, designed for its acoustical properties. This is where the first Aston Magna Festival concerts took place.
Lee Elman has been the virtual patron-saint of the Festival since it was begun. Sadly, he passed away just a month ago, and will miss the 50th-Anniversary Festival, which we will dedicate to his memory. Professionally, he was a real-estate lawyer in New York, and founded Elman Investors, Inc., but he treasured his weekends and summers at Aston Magna. He was also a great culture-vulture, attending concerts, plays and operas constantly in the City and in the Berkshires.
Did you perform under Albert Fuller, the Festival’s co-founder?
Yes, in the late 1970s. I played in the performances and recordings of the Brandenburg Concerti – the first American recording on period instruments. I remember well Fuller’s commanding solos in the Fifth Brandenburg. He later asked me to be concertmaster for a French Baroque opera he conducted in New York and Chicago.
I also had an oblique relationship with a later Artistic Director, John Hsu, who experienced a wonderful American Dream story. After his family emigrated in the late 1940s from China, John studied at Carroll College in Wisconsin, near where I grew up, and I met him when he played the Tartini Concerto for gamba, with my youth orchestra in the early 1960s — my first encounter with that instrument. John became a professor at Cornell University and did much to foster a generation of gamba players.
Were you involved with the Aston Magna Academies?
Yes, I played in several before I became Artistic Director of the Festival. The Academies were tangential to the Festival but were stimulating events, born of Albert Fuller’s and Lee Elman’s vision. Funded generously by the National Endowment for the Humanities, they were biennial, three-week gatherings of scholars and students of the humanities, focusing on particular periods, with music at the center. Raymond Erikson, a fiery harpsichordist and lively musicologist (recently retired from Queens College and CUNY), masterminded these Academies. I was Artistic Direct of the Festival during the last two of the eleven Academies — Music in the Hispanic New World, and Handel and Hogarth. They were intellectually very satisfying, and I deeply regret that the shrinking of the National Endowment for the Humanities makes producing these gatherings virtually impossible these days.
You have made many recordings with Aston Magna. Which of these are your favorites?
That’s a hard one! Each was my favorite while we were doing it. But if I may name a few: Handel’s “The Triumph of Time and Truth” — his first oratorio, a masterpiece. We performed this work at the Festival a number of times, and on tour in Europe, including at the Palazzo Pamphili in Rome, where the work was given its premier under Handel. I collaborated on a text translation with a dear Italian friend, Mariagrazia Marzot. We performed the recitatives in English and the arias and choruses in Italian. I believe in this practice, since the recitatives are narrative, the arias poetry. I’ve done the same with Bach cantatas and, last summer, with Scarlatti’s oratorio Humanità e Lucifero. We also recorded Monteverdi’s Orfeo, separate disks of cantatas by Clerambault, Rameau and Bach, Mozart quintets, Bach’s Musical Offering, and also his Art of Fugue in my orchestration for nine instruments.
Aston Magna was the proving ground for a number of soloists and groups in the early music world. Do you have favorites among them?
There are so many colleagues I would like to acknowledge, and I would not like to leave anyone out. But I have particularly fond memories of concert with harpsichordists John Gibbons, Ray Erickson, Peter Sykes and Michael Sponseller; singers Frank Kelley, Dominique Labelle, Jeffrey Gall, Nancy Armstrong, Bill Hite, Sharon Baker, Kristin Watson, David Ripley, Aaron Sheehan, Jason McStoots and David McFerrin; violinists Stanley Ritchie, Julie Leven, Edson Scheid, Nancy Wilson; violists David Miller, Marcus Thompson, Jason Fisher and (my leading lady) Laura Jeppesen; cellists Loretta O’Sullivan, Jacques Lee Wood; bassists Anne Trout and Douglas Balliett; flutists Christoper Krueger and Andrea Leblanc; oboists Steve Hammer and Marc Schachman. Then of course: fortepianists Malcolm Bilson, Sylvia Berry and Robert Levin, with whom I will do an all-Mozart program this coming summer. Gambists have been a regular at Aston Magna; in addition to Laura, we’ve featured Sarah Cunningham, Jane Hershey and Emily Walhout. When I think of any one of these people, particular repertoire and pleasurable collaborations come to mind.
Yes, in 1970-71, at Fontainebleau. I had gone there to study with the violinist Henryk Szeryng at the Écoles d’art américaines, but he cancelled at the last minute, and she — the director of the school — took me on as a student. It was one of the happiest accidents in my life. She was a wonderful teacher and challenger. She understood what each of her many students needed and pushed them in that direction. After some preliminaries, during which she tested my harmonic understanding, she coached me in violin/keyboard repertoire: Bach, Debussy, Fauré, Stravinsky. She played piano along with me, and mind you — she was blind by then. And she turned me on to the music of her teacher, Gabriel Fauré. His music has been a constant companion since then. Mlle. Boulanger invited John Kirkpatrick and me to play a recital on the Fontainebleau summer series in 1972. John had been a student of hers in 1922 (!) — in the same class as Aaron Copland. We played Mozart, Ives, and Fauré.
You remind me that you were never a violinist exclusively focused on Baroque music.
I have been rather shamelessly omnivorous (perhaps should I say promiscuous?) when it comes to violin repertoire. While at Yale during my graduate years, I freelanced in both New York and Boston, and came to feel as though Boston would offer me more flexibility and varied opportunities. I have been a member of the Boston Musica Viva, a charter member of Boston Baroque (Marty Pearlman was a classmate at Yale), Boston Philharmonic (concertmaster for its first years), Handel and Haydn Society (concertmaster for twenty-four years under Christopher Hogwood and Grant Llewellyn), a founding member of the Boston Museum Trio (resident at the Museum of Fine Arts), and first violinist of the Lydian String Quartet (twenty-nine years at Brandeis, which was a wonderful host to the ensemble and to me as a recitalist and teacher). I was concertmaster of the BEMF Orchestra for the first five Festivals. I also team-taught a course at Harvard with Robert Levin for 20 years — in the performance and analysis of chamber music – a very happy memory. I’ve commissioned a number of solo works and have particularly valued my contacts with composers Yehudi Wyner (a former teacher, then a colleague of mine), Daniel Pinkham, John Harbison, Peter Child and Tom Oboe Lee.
You also made a recording of the Charles Ives Violin Sonatas with John Kirkpatrick.
Yes, another serendipitous memory! Kirkpatrick came to Yale as a senior member of the piano faculty just when I arrived as a grad student. He had been a friend of Ives’s, was curator of the Ives Collection at Yale, and had really brought Ives’s music to public attention with his historic performance of the Concord Sonata in 1939. It being the late 60s, I had the chutzpah to ask him if he’d read through an Ives sonata with me, thinking he’d brush me off (I was a bit of a brash hippy in those days). I’ll never forget his response: “I’ve always wanted to play those pieces. Let’s get started!”). And so began a ten-year collaboration during which he edited the five Sonatas (they badly need it!). We performed them often and eventually recorded them.
At the Aston Magna Festival, you’ve occasionally stepped outside the 17th and 18th centuries.
Those rich centuries are, of course, the meat and potatoes of our repertoire, but we have gone both earlier and later. We’ve done Gesualdo, Salamone Rossi and Coperario (late 16th century), and even dipped our toe into the distant headwaters of the late 14th century (Solage’s Fumeux Fume par Fumée.)
Looking the other way, I am a Brahms-lover and have done his duo sonatas with Robert Levin, playing an 1869 Streicher piano — exactly like the one Brahms owned. We’ve also programmed Schubert, Schumann (both Clara and Robert), and Mendelssohn.
We always try to use appropriate instruments — whether strings, winds, brass, keyboard and percussion. Last summer we did a theatrical program dubbed “The Devil’s in the Tales,” featuring Alessandro Scarlatti’s Humanity and Lucifer and Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale (also featuring the that fallen angel). The works, composed two centuries apart, speak to the same human dilemmas. Nadia Boulanger also often programmed and recorded works written centuries apart that related to each other in musical or literary ways.
As much as possible, we used period instruments in the Stravinsky, which included the old French bassoon, a piston cornet, and gut strings on the violin and bass. The Soldier’s Tale is really a medieval morality play dressed up in modern harmonies and Stravinskian, peg-legged rhythms, though it features Bach-like chorales and a dance suite, among other stylistic adaptations of older forms. We were particularly fortunate in having Frank Kelley stage directing and narrating.
But 99% of our repertoire comes from the 17th and 18th centuries, and in the last 75 years there has been such a wonderful outpouring of musicological discoveries and republications of forgotten works from this period. Thanks to technology, much of it is now available online for musicians to rediscover and advocate. Fashioning cogent programs has been one of my pleasures.
What do you see for Aston Magna in the future?
Well, we are essentially a chamber music festival, and we will continue to offer series that each have a musical focus. It may be difficult to sustain the summer series at the former level. Costs have risen and support has diminished. But Aston Magna retains pioneering pride; I hope to continue that spirit as long as I am Director. Please check out our offerings HERE.