GREAT BARRINGTON — When you think of trio sonatas – if you think of trio sonatas – you picture courtiers in perukes and silken robes scraping away at musical instruments by candlelight in the duke's palace.
Composer Alex Burtzos (born 1985) has a different take. He thinks of the baroque form, but he also thinks of a rock band. Apropos his "Sonata/Sonare," which received its world premiere at Aston Magna Saturday night, he writes:
"Growing up, I played drums in a variety of bands, and I was interested in projecting that collaborative spirit (and elements of the language of popular music) onto the trio ensemble instrumentation. Hopefully, the result evokes the rawness and excitement that must have pervaded the performance of this repertoire during its earliest days."
Longtime benefactor Lee Elman commissioned "Sonata/Sonare" for Aston Magna, which takes its name from that of his Great Barrington estate. The three-movement work lent a biting contemporary edge to a program that otherwise traced the baroque form for approximately a century from its origins in the early 17th century.
Aston Magna gathered an ensemble of Daniel Stepner and Edson Scheid on violin, Laura Jeppesen on viola da gamba and viola, and Michael Sponseller on harpsichord for the tour. It began with an aptly named "sonata in dialogue" by Salamone Rossi and culminated in Handel's Sonata, Opus 2, No. 6. The deft playing on period instruments extracted maximum contrast and variety — also a good bit of virtuosic display — within the limited compass of the music.
A sonata is for a solo instrument or two instruments, right? Despite its perplexing name, the "trio" of trio sonata simply signifies two melody instruments, usually violins, accompanied by a keyboard instrument, usually a harpsichord. Its bass line is in turn often reinforced by another instrument such as the viola da gamba. That in effect makes the trio sonata a quartet sonata. Got that?
"Sonata/Sonare," hyperkinetic, owed little besides instrumentation to its forebears (sonare: to sound). The movements were marked "Finding," "Losing" and "Searching," but on first hearing it was hard to track a progression of moods or ideas.
The manic energy of rock was not difficult to find. The fast outer movements, with the harpsichord pinging away motorically on a different track from the alternately swooping, plucked strings, barreled along like a car doing 90 over a rough road, slowing only for a curve in "Losing." It's a new world out there.
The rhythmic complexity seemed to defy performance, but performed the music was, feverishly. The audience gave it an enthusiastic ovation.
For the rest, the most striking pieces were a sonata by Locatelli, ending in a gentle, lilting pastoral, and the Sonata VI by Purcell, recalling his songs and dances. A sonata by Leclair was actually a duo, with the two violins leading each other on a merry chase.
The other composers were Lelio Colista, Corelli and Antonio Caldara. Rock was far in the future.