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Aston Magna in Hudson & Amenia

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Jun 23rd, 2018

From left: Daniel Stepner, Julie Leven, Laura Jeppesen, Michael Sponseller, Dominique Labelle, Christopher Krueger

When I was a graduate student at Columbia University and drank in the demi-monde of the old West End Bar with its horseshoe-shaped bar and lounged in private wooden booths, I was a fan of Baroque music, especially the I Musici collective. I recall running into a tousle-headed character who asked me what music I liked and I replied Vivaldi and Bach. “Stuck in the ritornello!” he scoffed. “Music had not yet begun then,” he said with a sneer. He started to talk of Robert Schumann but walked away.

I did not have many books in those days; I had only one book on music, Music in the Baroque Era by Manfred F. Bukofzer. (I still have it.) A few years later, it occurred to me that it was a little incongruous for a man named after a Romantic poem by Lord Byron or a tone poem by Franz Liszt to write a book on Baroque music. I was secretly fond of this excellent book in part because it was published the year I was born.

At Time & Space Ltd. in Hudson last Friday evening, the joys of Baroque music, entitled “Baroque Cornucopia,” were on full display with authentic period instruments. Aston Magna chamber group opened with an eternal delight: J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 which features a long solo harpsichord at the end of the first movement, here played fluidly by Michael Sponseller (from Boston) who has recorded on numerous labels. This delight was the Ur-solo upon which the keyboard solo in a group is based. Hearing this is a little like watching the first green shoot of a tulip appear in Spring. The keyboard solo tradition is now a mighty oak with manifold branches and uncountable joyous leaves, yet to see the first shoot remains exciting.

The delight of the second movement was the passing around of tunes between the seven players. I was especially fond of the violin and baroque flute dialogue duet in the French mode between violinist Daniel Stepner and flutist Christopher Krueger. In the third and final movement the violin and flute appear to have become such good friends that they run parallel instead of disagreeing in conversation. And that final Celtic gigue offers such an agreeable party of genial instruments emanating sheer fun! For a short interview with maestro Stepner click here.

Sonata for violin, bassoon, and continuo by G.P. Telemann was next. This was a great showpiece for the bassoon expertly played by Andrew Schwartz who had such a smooth and perky tone. Unpublished during Telemann’s lifetime (Telemann has the record for the most surviving manuscripts in the history of music), this sonata exhibited French influence in the first movement, then a lively Sicilian dance, while the third movement offered a more German home-town climax.

Yet the real highlight of the evening was a World Premiere of “The Hourglass Equation” by young Alex Burtzos (b. 1985). This was a composition commissioned by Randolph and Cynthia Nelson for four players on Baroque period instruments: violin, bassoon, flute, and harpsichord. Beginning with a slow, antique, mysterious Middle Eastern rhythm, it segued into a an upbeat jazzy edge, then morphed into the world of Alban Berg and Alex Burtzos, which was a delightful world to inhabit. The trajectory, which sounded like an arc from childhood to old age, offered exciting and amusing dynamics. Here was the world made new on antique instruments!

After intermission, it was all G.F. Handel sung by soprano Dominique Labelle who teaches voice at McGill University in Canada. She sang two Handel Arias, HMV 204-5 and a long Bach Cantata, BWV 82, which provided a rich meditation on death. Labelle expertly caught the joy beyond resignation that the music yearns for in a remarkable and memorable performance.

And so why is Amenia in the title of this article? Aston Magna is performing in Amenia next Friday evening at Wethersfield Gardens in the Carriage House at 7:30 pm. You may tour the gardens before the concert or bring a picnic supper. “Dueling Violins, Genial Gambas” is the program that will offered with Edson Scheid and Daniel Stepner on violins; Sarah Cunningham and Laura Jeppesen on violas da gamba. My favorite Telemann album (from 1997) features Sarah Cunningham; I will be thrilled to hear her and the other players, which include Catherine Liddell on theorbo and Michael Sponseller on harpsichord, live. They will be performing music of Dario Castello, Jean-Marie Leclair, Antonio Caldara, Sainte-Columbe, Robert de Visée, Marin Marais, and Francois Couperin. Tickets can be purchased here.