The opening concert of Aston Magna’s 50th-anniversary season (repeats tomorrow in Great Barrington) brought together late Baroque and early 20th-century devils in an agreeably Faustian bargain with an abundance of original instruments at Brandeis’s Slosberg Music Center last night. Dan Stepner, violinist and artistic director of the annual festival, and Frank Kelley, tenor and stage director, have already weighed in HERE and HERE on this season’s five concerts, so I will focus on last night’s music.
Alessandro Scarlatti’s duet oratorio Humanità e Lucifero is listed in the New Grove with a questionable date of 1706. Kristen Watson (Humanity) and Frank Kelley (Lucifer) shared its colorful debate of recitatives and short arias over a range of empyrean sentiments and declamations. It also contained an abundance of fine, ornate melody even in the agitated, infernal passages, with a stile concitato and Baroque trumpet in D major when Lucifer announces that “Fate will render me a great monarch.” The birth of Mary, however, “inspires the world with true faith and harmony,” and Part I ends with Humanity and Lucifer in a duet, Lucifer’s “fight with Fate.” In Part II, Lucifer has already lost the fight, bemoaning his return to “Hell, but I go there neither prince nor king,” and Frank Kelley proudly stomped off the stage. Humanity, triumphant at last, sang “praise and honor” to the Virgin, with an extended song in dance rhythm, returning to the C major of the beginning of the work. Dan Stepner and Julie Leven (baroque violins), Anne Black (baroque viola), Loretta O’Sullivan (baroque cello), Katherine Foss (bass), Robinson Pyle (baroque trumpet), Marc Vallon (baroque bassoon), and Peter Sykes, harpsichord admirably fortified the 35 minutes of refined, aristocratic sacred style.
Notwithstanding its minimal requirements since 1918, Stravinsky’s l’Histoire du soldat is not often seen in a staged production. This performance imaginatively combined two pillars and a shower curtain, with three painted backdrops in Grant Wood style hardly more than a yard square, and the Soldier’s gimcrack violin seemed to be made of cotton candy. The plainly costumed but adroit actors Frank Kelley (narrator), Jack Greenberg (the Soldier), David McFerrin (the Devil), and Shira Kagan-Shafman (the Governor’s Daughter), used Dan Stepner’s new verse translation of Ramuz’s French text that I think is even better than Michael Flanders’s version that I reviewed HERE in 2018. It was good to hear the well-rehearsed score so expertly performed by a septet ensemble without a conductor, and only a few cues from the violinist, sitting slightly higher than the others: Dan Stepner, violin; William Hudgins, clarinet; Marc Vallon, Buffet bassoon (French style, without the ivory ring of the more familiar Heckel instrument); Robinson Pyle (cornet à pistons); Mack Ramsey, trombone; Katherine Foss, bass; and Robert Schulz, percussion. The score calls for interchangeable B-flat and A cornets, not always easy to find; Robinson Pyle played the part on the B-flat, explaining to me that Stravinsky, back in the day, simply to be practical, had followed the preferences of the original players despite the specifications of his own score. (Stravinsky’s recordings of l’Histoire, from 1952, monaural, and 1961, stereo, are different in style and quality; see if you can find Sony Classical MH2K 63325, “the mono years.”) From my own time-beating experience with l’Histoire, I would have to say that some parts of the score are clumsy and even impossible to conduct as written, and that I would emphatically agree with Stepner’s informal remarks to the effect that often the ensemble proceeds more effectively without a conductor. These performers all enjoyed a good time, and certainly had no difficulties last night.
Note: Video at right shows same cast in 2022.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.