On August 10, following the end of their Summer Festival season, the Aston Magna quartet performed early music from the 1600’s on period instruments to a rapt audience at Congregation Beth David, the oldest synagogue in Dutchess County.
Music Director and violinist par excellence, Daniel Stepner, put together a program that both intrigued and delighted, ranging from lesser known composers such as Bertali and Salamone Rossi to Henry Purcell and and Marin Marais.
The musicians on such instruments as the lute-like theorbo and the viola da gamba introduced the history and string technology of their period instruments in great detail.
Catherine Liddell, one of the few American masters of the theorbo, displayed the range of her long-necked stringed instrument to play continuo basso, or thinking from the bass up. The instrument can be close to six feet in length. She explained that the theorbo took on the the function but not the design of the Greek lyra and kithara, and adapted it for the Renaissance period.
The theorbo is made of yew in the back and sprucewood in the front. It’s original purpose was to accompany a solo singer but it is being rediscovered in small period ensembles. It has 6-8 strings, and Liddell explained that double the number of strings can be added. The extended neck enables the musician to press on the frets to hear chords and bass lines as well as different pitches along with plucked melodies. Liddell played Kapsberger’s “Tocatta,” which was written to feature the theorbo, with great expertise, delivering an example of the instrument’s range and subtlety, much to the fascination of many.
A description and demonstration of the viola da gamba by Laura Jeppensen was equally intriguing. The instrument has a flat back and a fret board that makes it more like a guitar than a cello, even though it is bowed while being held between the legs. It has six strings, not the four of a cello, and movable frets. Both of these instruments were most suited for being played at court or in small salons.
Marin Marais’ piece called “Plainte,” was played exclusively for Louis XIV in private music chambers when ‘Le Grand Dauphin’ wished to retire from the travails of court life. It was played most plaintively by both musicians on theorbo and viola da gamba. A doleful musical meditation followed with short pieces by Robert de Visée and “Les Voix Humaines,” also by Marais.
Stepner’s fascinating description of the history and musicology of each piece and composer enabled audience members with little familiarity of the music of the period to place the composers in the context of their time. We were introduced to one of the rare female composers of the era, Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729). She was prolific in both performance and composition, despite the fact that her entire family, child, brother and parents were tragic victims of the Plague. Her Sonata in D was played by the entire quartet with great gusto, depicting the melodic depth and range of the instruments.
The” Chacony” by Henry Purcell, the most well-known of the period composers, was played magnificently by the ensemble and has already been suitably adulated in this publication. Although the first violin traditionally has the most melodic voice which stands out above the second violin, in this piece (and the Rossi “Sinfonia”) both violins are given a more equal voice, as Stepner explained.
The Italian Jewish composer, Salamone Rossi (1570-1630), another early Renaissance composer, supplied three gems at the end of the program: the “Sinfonia,” “Sonata Dialogo,” and a sonata called “Porto celato, il mio nobil pensiero,” which became a popular period song depicting the meditative emotion of being lost in thought.
This delightful and instructive evening to a capacity crowd was a most pleasant musical exploration heartily appreciated with an enthusiastic, standing ovation. An Aston Magna video appears below.