Aston Magna turns the clock ahead


GREAT BARRINGTON -- For many seasons, the early-music festival Aston Magna has been creeping forward from the baroque in repertoire. This year, the concert series leaps into not only Mendelssohn and Brahms but also the world premiere of a commissioned work by Nico Muhly, a composer much in the news with a Met Opera premiere just behind him.

Muhly's "Aston Magna" celebrates not the festival itself, but the Great Barrington estate of that name belonging to Lee Elman, a festival founder and benefactor. It was on his estate that the festival had its start 42 years ago, going on to include workshops, institutes and books in addition to concerts.

Commissioned by Elman, Muhly's piece will climax the five-concert season, which opens Saturday night at Simon's Rock with a Bach program. The five programs carry the overall title "A Season of Romance, War and Other Human Follies."

Despite the come-on, artistic director Daniel Stepner says the programming is intended to "highlight the forces that became the Enlightenment in the 18th century." Continuing the secularizing forces opened up by the Renaissance, the period was marked by advances in science and the humanities, he says, pointing to Galileo and Spinoza as exemplars. Music, he says, reflects this change and the turmoil that sometimes accompanied it.

Romance and its attendant vices come into play in the middle three programs. The more traditional opener celebrates the 300th anniversary of the birth of C.P.E. Bach, with an assist from his father, Johann Sebastian.

The son is represented by what Stepner describes as some of his "more outlandish" pieces, such as a sonata for bass recorder, viola and continuo. The father's "Musical Offering" provides a virtuoso show of counterpoint conceived during a visit to the son.

Muhly's "Aston Magna" keeps company with Italian trio sonatas by Corelli, Vivaldi, Rossi and others on the July 19 final program. Like them, it is scored for two violins, viola da gamba and harpsichord. (Each Berkshire program, presented on a Saturday, is given on the preceding nights at Brandeis University and Bard College.)

In five movements running about 15 minutes, "Aston Magna" depicts scenes from Elman's hilltop house and estate. Muhly paints a scenario in a program note:

First movement: A grove of trees suggests "a pruned, spiritual environment."

Second movement: The studio of once-famous violinist Albert Spalding, the previous estate owner, evokes "the rigors of practice rather than the elegance of performance."

Third movement: the neoclassical architecture around the pool, with "a solo swimmer at night looking at the sky."

Fourth movement: a return indoors to "the convivial and friendly environment of the living room."

Fifth movement: "back to the grove of trees, with a slightly more winsome presence from the viola da gamba."

"It's kind of an impressionistic piece," Stepner, who plays baroque violin in the series, said by phone. It contains minimalistic and tonal elements that help to make it "congenial," he said, and could be adapted for modern instruments.

Muhly's "Two Boys" opened at the Met last October to mixed reviews. Then 32, he was the youngest composer ever commissioned by the Met. In a mix of modern styles, the opera is based on a true story of one boy's near-murder by another.

As for the rest of the Aston Magna season:

The second program, "Winds of Romanticism," features stellar wind players on 19th-century instruments in works by Brahms, Mendelssohn and the little-known Bernhard Crusell. Stepner said the program continues the festival's exploration of early instruments, but also provides "an excuse to play the music, which I love."

The third program, "Music from a Turbulent 17th Century England," offers galliards, laments and sonatas from the period surrounding the English Civil War, which led to the downfall and execution of Charles I. Stepner said the intent is "to reflect the uneasiness of England in that century."

Then comes "Vice Squad: Baroque Skirmishes with Alcohol, Tobacco, Coffee and Love." Bach's oft-performed "Coffee" Cantata naturally gets an airing but so, said Stepner, does a little-known Bach song in praise of his pipe. Look also for Purcell's "Songs of Love and Drink."

The idea of playing a new work like Muhly's comes comfortably to Stepner. On his own and as first violinist of the Lydian String Quartet, he is an old hand at contemporary pieces.

"So the whole idea feels good," he says of programming the Muhly piece, "and given the style of the piece and Lee's idea of doing something to celebrate the estate, I think it's pretty appropriate."

There is tradition of baroque and classical composers writing background music to be played as entertainment in palaces of the rich, but that's not "Aston Magna," according to Stepner. It requires close listening, he says.


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