Early music, new times

Friday June 8, 2012

LENOX - Robert Strassler remembers the beginning: "I was a New York boy, and I'd never been able to go to concerts in New York because it was difficult to predict when I'd be around for three weeks. If you didn't buy tickets three weeks in advance, you didn't get in. That's New York. And so when I saw a concert of baroque music advertised in the church, I said, 'Well, I'll go see' - expecting, of course, to see a hillbilly version of Bach and Handel."

The church was St. James in Great Barrington. Townspeople had other concerns. They feared "hot dog stands" and "hootchy-kootchy."

The new concert series was Aston Magna, which touted the then novel idea of playing early music on period instruments in a period style. It's now 40 years later, Strassler is the force behind the festival, and it will celebrate the anniversary Saturday night with a gala in Ozawa Hall. The 6 p.m. program includes vocal works by Monteverdi, Purcell and Handel and culminates in Bach's " Brandenburg" Concerto No. 1. Four more concerts will follow at weekly intervals in the Daniel Arts Center at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington. Many alumni, including founding violinist Stanley Ritchie, will return to perform. As in the past, the programs will travel to Bard College and Brandeis University.

Aston Magna's fortunes have waxed and waned over the years: sometimes more concerts, sometimes fewer, including a failed attempt a few years ago to establish a Berkshire winter series. In the early years, 11 annual academies funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities brought together musicians and scholars for mutual enrichment. Books, recordings and other outreach projects, including period- instrument workshops this month at Brandeis, have also resulted.

The onset of the recession four years ago forced a cut in the number of regular-season concerts from six to four. But artistic director Daniel Stepner looks for an upswing with this year's celebratory programming and move of most concerts out of the July high season and into June.

Aston Magna was the child of harpsichordist- scholar Albert Fuller and Great Barrington resident Lee Elman, on whose estate, Aston Magna, the earliest concerts were held. Although early-music groups, such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt's Concentus Musicus, were then active in Europe, in the United States the idea was cutting-edge.

In the years since, the practice has gone mainstream. After years of scoffing at Aston Magna as a bunch of secondraters down the road, Strassler says, even the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood has taken on the style when it plays early music.

Strassler and Stepner were there from the inception.

Strassler, an amateur viola da gamba player with homes in Brookline and Great Barrington, was so taken with the first concert he heard - " it knocked my socks off," he recalls - that he made a donation. That got him put on the board. He became chairman in 1984 and has been chairman and angel-in-chief ever since.

Stepner, a Boston-based violinist, attended the early concerts as a Yale graduate student, staying in a Great Barrington room at $5 a night. In 1976, he played in the festival's path- breaking performance of Bach's six "Brandenburgs" on period instruments, a novelty in the United States at the time.

When Strassler asked Stepner to take over as director in 1992, Stepner didn't think of himself as a baroque violinist - just a violinist who played many kinds of music, including modern. He swallowed his doubts and accepted.

" It's become a bigger and bigger part of my life in terms of preparing music and programming and thinking about early music, and it's been very satisfying," he says now. He credits Strassler, among others, with guiding the organization and keeping it afloat.

Given the uncertainties of the economy and the aging of the classical- music audience, the future for Aston Magna is somewhat cloudy, but Stepner wants to carry on more or less as in the past. Ideally, that would include a return to opera and the academies, plus house concerts such as those he now presents for 50 to 60 people in his home.

The academies, he says, were "very stimulating intellectually. In a certain sense, we're tradesmen who spend a lot of time freelancing and teaching and playing, and there's not enough time to become betterread, more Renaissance men. And I wish there were."

Going out of the way to attract a younger audience is not a viable option, according to Stepner. While young soloists and enthusiasts are coming along, he says, "the way people talk about getting younger audiences all the time does a discredit to the real audience, which is more mature, older and ultimately interested in what we're doing."

Strassler sees a "spectrum" of possibilities in the future, ranging from disbanding - his and Stepner's generation is getting on in years, he points out - to amalgamation with another organization.

"Things inevitably change," he says, "and it's possible we'll either attract new blood or we'll merge with new blood or we'll close. I do not think that we can continue to do what we're doing ad infinitum."

But as long as the series exists, he adds, "I don't want to see Aston Magna change its spots. It should be a baroque music group."


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