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Time Traveling with Aston Magna

Music Preview
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Fri Jun 28th, 2019

Aston Magna

The early music revival of performing on period instruments slowing began in the early 20th century. By 1970 this movement on re-discovered and re-furbished period instruments was in full bloom. This movement has led to a more accurate and profound appreciation of the nuances and depth, especially in Medieval and Renaissance music. The movement has led to the discovery of many lost or forgotten musical manuscripts. One of the most notable Baroque period instrumental organizations, Aston Magna, will be playing several concerts in our area.

Noted violinist Daniel Stepner, who studied period instruments in Belgium and Holland, then played with famed Boston Baroque, now directs Aston Magna. Their Summer Festival schedule will center around performances in Hudson, Great Barrington, and locally in Wethersfield Gardens, Amenia.

Stepner plays an 18th century violin that he had painstakingly restored; it has gut strings instead of metal strings. The ensemble uses tuning pitches much closer to Bach – a bit lower than modern pitch (which is usually at 440 HZ instead of 432 Hz). The ensemble’s viola de gamba players use a six-or-seven stringed instrument, depending on what they are playing; flute players play wooden flutes with only one or two keys while horn players have horns without valves, which arrived in the early nineteenth century. Stepner says, “You don’t hear these instruments very much today and the training to play them remains difficult. If you really want to hear what Mozart heard, you need to hear it performed with these period horns. And we have a period harpsichord: here the pitch level is lower with a brighter, lighter sound than the modern piano.”

At Time & Space, Ltd. In Hudson on July 5 at 7:30, Aston Magna opens with The Birth of the String Quartet: Castello, Caldara, Purcell, Telemann, Richter, Mozart, and Haydn. The program notes for this stimulating concert say “This evening’s program begins with works that hint at the possibilities of the string quartet’s four-instrument texture and ends with a fully mature piece for the ensemble by a fully mature composer. Still the title of this concert is literally true, in a figurative sort of way. Even with the final Haydn quartet, the genre will still be a newborn babe. Nor should this program be viewed as THE origins of the string quartet, although it is certainly a glance at various musical grains that provided the soil for its germination.” This is an opportunity to hear rarely performed important works by Castello, Caldara, and Richter. This concert will be repeated on July 6 at Saint James Place in Great Barrington at 6 pm.

On July 12 at Wethersfield Gardens in Amenia they will be presenting Music in the Age of Peter Paul Rubens with projections of Rubens’ paintings under direction of Dr. Richard Savino. These projections will be accompanied by music from Holland, Italy, England, and Spain by Caccini, Frescobaldi, Marin, Arañes and numerous others. All concerts will feature an historical background lecture forty-five minutes before each concert.

I find the subject of Rubens exciting. Noted critic Waldemar Januszczak has produced a marvelous documentary on Rubens which is available for free screening if you have Amazon Prime. Furthermore, he has produced another documentary entitled Renaissance Unchained wherein he challenges Vasari’s bold myth-making creation of an Italian Renaissance in painting; Januszczak makes the claim that the so-called Renaissance in painting happened almost a hundred years earlier Flanders. I’m aware that sophisticated madrigal singing was invented in Flanders and brought down to Italy. While it remains true that the Renaissance in literature happened in Italy, here is a most rare opportunity to judge the music of Flanders—there are a host of composers on the program that attendees of traditional music concerts have never heard. This appearance of the Aston Magna ensemble with slide projection at the Wethersfield Gardens at 7:30 pm on July 12 features perhaps its largest public ensemble ever.

A short video about Aston Magna appears below.