Aston Magna samples autumn

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Aston Magna? Isn't that an early-music festival in summer?

It is, but under the soubriquet Aston Magna Chamber Players, it tested the Berkshires' autumn waters Saturday night with a Columbus Day weekend concert in Saint James Place. Despite a multiplicity of competing events, including a Met HD simulcast of "Norma" that afternoon at the nearby Mahaiwe, a fair-sized audience of — at a guess 200 to 250 — was on hand.

The program was titled "Bach Father and Son, and Their Peers." It might also have been called "Souvenirs of Bach's Travels." Two of the four works recalled famous, even momentous trips Bach had taken.

The opening work, Buxtehude's Sonata, Opus 1, No. 4, for violin, viola da gamba and continuo, recalled how Bach, as a young man of 20 in 1705, had walked 250 miles from Arnstadt to L beck to learn from Buxtehude, whom he admired as an organist and composer. For a finale, the ensemble of four played half an hour's worth of excerpts from Bach's hour-long "Musical Offering," which resulted from his 1747 trip to the court of Frederick the Great in Potsdam. The work is an Aston Magna favorite, recorded as well as offered from time to time in concert.

On period instruments, the players — gambist Laura Jeppesen, flutist Andrea LeBlanc, violinist Daniel Stepner and harpsichordist Peter Sykes — upheld the standard of fine musicianship demonstrated for 44 years in the summer festival. Before the concert, Stepner, who is artistic director, suggested that if the autumn experiment was successful, there might be more such concerts in coming years.

In any case, the program built upon an expanded season of six concerts last summer. At least once before, in the early years, the series tried a concert in the off-season — this in the Berkshire Museum. For whatever reason, the idea then was dropped.

The progression in Saturday's program was from the Buxtehude sonata, through Handel's Sonata in B minor for flute and continuo and C.P.E. Bach's Sonata in C minor for keyboard and violin, to the "Musical Offering" excerpts. (By C.P.E.'s time, the keyboard would have been a fortepiano.)

C.P.E. was pivotal in the programming in more ways than one. It was to visit him that Bach made the trip to Potsdam, where the son was a musician in Frederick's court. Thus came the challenge from the king for the famous composer to compose a fugue on a theme that Frederick suggested. Bach - rarely, it seems, at a loss for inspiration — went to work on a series of labyrinthian elaborations culminating in a trio sonata, which concluded the Aston Magna program.

The performance typified the evening's work. It was enlivened by many expressive flourishes, including a sighing quality brought by Stepner to the andante's melody. After seeming less at ease than her partners in the Handel sonata, LeBlanc warmed the ensemble here with the tones of her wooden flute.                                                                                                                                  

C.P.E. stood out in another way. He composed in a freer style, verging on Haydn, than his predecessors. Stepner and Sykes took advantage of the opportunities for expressive freedoms in a winning performance.                                                                                                                   

Aston Magna in autumn? It would be a musical offering.

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