Preview by Kevin T McEneaney
I spoke to virtuoso violinist Daniel Stepner, artistic director of Aston Magna for the past thirty years, about his upcoming series of concerts: The Music of Scarlatti and Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” opens the season, which runs from 23 June to July 23 at Brandeis University, Hudson Hall and Mahaiwe in Great Barrington. All concerts are at 7 p.m. Playing on period instruments, Aston Magna is in its 49e year of performance of popular and hitherto unknown Baroque works.
Opening weekend, June 23-25, features a double bill featuring Naples-born Alessandro Scarlatti’s “Humanity and Lucifer” and Igor Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale.” Stepner says that these two morality stories “mirror each other over two centuries, representing humanity’s struggle against its demons.” (In times of great peril, a Manichean perspective often comes along.) Stepner will give pre-concert talks at 6:15 p.m. in each venue and explain the historical context of each piece. Scarlatti is an important early Baroque transitional voice that maintains 17th-century singing styles, while employing modern-sounding modulation.
Scarlatti’s “Humanity and Lucifer” is an unreleased oratorio that Stepner discovered in Munster, Germany. Out of curiosity, he bought a microfilm copy of the score from the library and transcribed it. He was impressed by the expert orchestration for strings, trumpet and recorder; the score contrasted with the mostly fragmentary and sketchy orchestration of Baroque music, which usually left the orchestration to the improvisation of the performers. The story here is Mary’s opposition to the devil, a popular medieval theme in which the cartoon-like Mary was often depicted as smiting the devil. The execution of this work is likely to be for the first time in the last three hundred years!!!
Stepner notes that Stravinsky’s 1918 play has resonance for today: war, revolution, pandemic. In fact, the Spanish flu interrupted performances of “The Soldier’s Tale.” Frank Kelley will narrate and direct “The Soldier’s Tale”, performed by two actors, a dancer and a motley “village orchestra” made up of Aston Magna musicians playing on period instruments. For “The Soldier’s Tale” and “The Rite of Spring”, Stravinsky composed for the classical recorder, which brings so much thrilling drama to both works. Stepner has performed “The Soldier’s Tale” many times over the past fifty years since performing it at the Long Warf Theatre. The performance will feature an early 20th century wreath and gut violin strings.
The concerts continue from June 30 to July 2 with a program entitled The chamber music of Robert and Clara Schumann. The performers are David Hyun-su Kim, pianoforte, Daniel Stepner, violin; Marcus Thompson, viola; and Jacques Lee Wood, cello. This parlor music by two of the most famous musically matched lovers will feature unexpected harmonies and unusual cross-rhythms with raised chords, as these two geniuses debate intimately different sexual perspectives on a host of issues.
On July 7, 8 and 9, Aston Magna presents The chamber music of JS Bach, including excerpts from “The Musical Offering”, with Andrea LeBlanc, baroque flute; Peter Sykes, harpsichord; Daniel Stepner, baroque violin, and Laura Jeppesen, viola da gamba. You can’t have a Baroque concert series without performing one of Bach’s masterpieces, in this case a dazzling collection of canons and fugues. Many of these famous pieces are puzzles that the performers must improvise to solve, giving these pieces a spontaneous and humorous drama.
On July 14, 15 and 16, the “All Handel” program offers “Armida abbandonata” and “Gloria” with soprano Dominique Labelle with Daniel Stepner and Julie Leven, baroque violins; Laura Jeppesen, viola da gamba, and Michael Sponseller, harpsichord. Handel’s Cantata, based on Torquato Tasso’s epic poem “Jerusalem Delivered”, depicts a tormented secular desolation, while Handel’s magnificent “Gloria” will provide a positive spiritual uplift that will delight a listener for days to come.
Finally, on July 21, 22 and 23, the program Double apotheosis: François Couperin’s tributes to Corelli and Lully » is performed by Daniel Stepner and Edson Scheid, baroque violins; Laura Jeppesen, viola da gamba; Catherine Liddell, theorbo; and Michael Sponseller, harpsichord. Here is a style contest between the Italian and French evolutionary styles (although Lully was born in Italy). Couperin lets the listener decide and does not pass judgment. A few decades later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau received from Denis Diderot the commission to write all the musical articles of the great French Encyclopedia published between 1751 and 1772. Diderot read only the first two articles submitted by Rousseau and found them good, he never read them all. Rousseau’s arguments. Diderot never forgave Rousseau for having defended the Italian musical tradition over the French tradition!
With the exception of the Mahaiwe performance at Great Barrington, which has a range of prices, tickets are $40/advance or $50 at the door. Discounts and subscription rates are available. Buy your tickets at http://astonmagna.org/ or by phone (888) 492-1283. Tickets for the Mahaiwe show must be purchased at https://mahaiwe.org/, or (413) 528-0100. Tickets for Hudson Hall are also available at https://hudsonhall.org/event/aston-magna/