Aston Magna Festival: An estate's history comes alive in music


GREAT BARRINGTON -- Nico Muhly is one of the music world's most widely discussed young composers -- his work is heard on both sides of the music spectrum, classical to pop and rock. On the one hand, he has worked on classical compositions with the Brooklyn-based indie-folk rock band, Grizzly Bear, and on a different platform, his opera "Two Boys," a collaboration with librettist Craig Lucas, made its Metropolitan Opera debut in 2013 following the premiere in 2011 at the English National Opera.

Lee Elman, co-founder with harpsichordist Albert Fuller of the Aston Magna Festival, has been an admirer of Muhly's compositional achievements, having first encountered him through his opera, "Dark Sisters," presented two years ago by Gotham Opera in Manhattan.

Through receptions and mutual friends, Elman became acquainted with, and eventually friends with, Muhly, leading to a decision to commission Muhly's talents.

Elman asked Muhly for a composition honoring Aston Magna, his estate for which the concert series was named, and where it was inaugurated in 1972. The result, "Aston Magna," will be performed at 6 p.m. Saturday on a program with Italian trio sonatas at Bard College of Simon's Rock's Daniel Arts Center.

"I took a leaf from the Stravinsky story," said Elman recalling Igor Stravinsky's accepting a commission to write "Dumbarton Oaks," a chamber concerto named for the estate of Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss on the occasion of their 30th wedding anniversary.

"The (Aston Magna) estate does have a musical history," Elman said during a phone conversation a few days ago while he was traveling in North Carolina. He noted that the house was built by Charles Freer, an art gallery entrepreneur. The second owner was Albert Spalding, a violinist who, in 1930, created the estate's studio where he practiced.

"He had friends there -- (Albert) Einstein who was a violinist, Paderewski, Casals, Sibelius, and many famous people from Tanglewood in the ‘30s and ‘40s. They would play for a select group of American people."

The name Aston Magna was drawn from a favorite picnic site of Spalding in the Cotswold district of Gloucestershire England, added Elman, interestingly not far from a village called Great Barrington.

Muhly, 32, says that commission offers arrive with frequency.

"People are always asking for things," he said, "but the classical music world works very slowly. You find out about things years in advance and can plan out how to divide the year up.

"What I like to do generally is a mix of things -- large works, small works, works for friends, works for strangers, collaborative pieces," explained Muhly in an exchange of email. The composer, who is among the most prolific, also is peripatetic, and at this particular time was traveling in Sweden.

Elman's offer appealed to Muhly, the composer said, as a different kind of musical adventure.

"I'd never done anything like it, mainly," he said. "Site-specific (or site inspired) composition has a long history, but I've never really had the opportunity to write instrumental music taking a cue from a house or a landscape."

The composer found what he needed. "I visited a bunch of times, took walks around, took videos, took pictures. I read everything available about the history of the house: who lived there, why the name is what it is, what's special about the site, what's unique about it.

"From there, I tried to write music that belonged, in a sense, to the space, both indoors and out. It's not programmatic in a traditional sense of the word, but I tried to call attention to the fact that the house contains formal and informal elements, and, indeed, was a place where music was practiced - not just performed - and that there is a busy industriousness to such places."

"Aston Magna's" movements are:

l. "The Grove"

2. "The Studio"

3. "The Pool / Sky"

4. "The Salon"

and it concludes with a return to "The Grove."

"The movements are distinct, but without huge pauses in between them," said Muhly. "It should feel like any sonata-ish piece."

The work is on a program of Italian trio sonatas, by Corelli, Vivaldi, Rossi, Stradella and Pernucio, all of the Baroque period. Performers include Daniel Stepner and Joan Plana, Baroque violins; Laura Jeppesen, viola da gamba, and Michael Sponseller, harpsichord.

How will "Aston Magna" fit in this musical environment?

"I love Baroque music," Muhly replied, "and I love period instruments, and as the house has such a long history with those instruments, it felt appropriate to just compose for them as naturally as I could.

"It's always hard to tell whether a contemporary piece will fit snugly with old, tested furniture, but it seems very much in keeping with the place to try it out."


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