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The wonders of Aston Magna at Saint James Place

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Jul 15th, 2018

From left: David Miller, Daniel Stepner, Jacques Lee Wood, Todd Williams, Anne Trout, Andrew Schwartz, Eric Hoeprich

Driving from the south, the first “church” one encounters in Great Barrinton is St. James Place, a remarkable stone church that is now a vibrant arts center with wonderful acoustics. Here Aston Magna presented a program alphabetically entitled “Beethoven, Mozart, Romberg” this past Saturday at 6 pm.

They opened with Mozart’s Quartet in B-flat, an early posthumous transcription arrangement of his Salzburg c.1799 Violin Sonata in B-flat major, done by Johann Anton André who had obtained the manuscript from Mozart’s widow, Constanze, eight years after Mozart’s painful demise in 1791. André had turned the piano sonata with violin into a marvelous quartet with viola to feature the clarinet, a new instrument that Mozart really loved. Sometimes labeled a clarinet quartet, this lively piece allows the clarinet to dominate in the second Andante cantabile movement. Eric Hoeprich, playing a reconstructed period clarinet that he himself built (he was the first to do this and has subsequently made many others), appeared to instruct Daniel Stepner’s brilliant violin, which dominated the first movement, on how to handle this melody.

Hoeprich was astonishingly eloquent, yet there was a little joke afoot: the clarinet eventually worked itself into a corner, and the violin (“Yes, this is how you get out of this corner”) ably took over the last quarter of the movement with the clarinet eventually agreeing, politely. The concluding Rondo Allegro has all four instruments understanding the melody and working together in exuberant unison so that the “voices” of David Miller on viola and Jacques Le Wood on cello could be forcefully heard in their contribution to the effort. There’s nothing like unified agreement after a musical debate to make everyone go home with joy and contentment.

But there was more to come, since we had just begun. Trio in E Minor, Op. 38, no. 1 by Bernhard Romberg (1767-1841) also offered a little humor. The first movement appeared quite simple, the second much more difficult, and the third very difficult for the instrumentalists who played viola, cello, and contrabass. Wood on cello, the featured instrument, was exceptionally nuanced while Miller on viola supplied agreeable, companionable qualities. Anne Trout played contrabass with nimble resonance. The cello was surrounded with admiration. (Romberg contributed several improvements to cello design.)

After brief intermission, the main event: Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat, Op. 20, which was written to delight the audience of his day and our day, despite Beethoven’s later disparagement of this early work. When Beethoven first heard it played, he boasted to a friend “This is my Creation,” i.e., it is on a par with Haydn’s The Creation. Not quite, but it is a delight. This 1799 septet is in six movements. My favorite movements were the even numbered: 2, 4, 6; the second with its slow Adagio played with such marvelous tone and shape by Hoeprich; the fourth and sixth for Stepner’s fortissimo, supple bowing.

The dynamics of the Septet provided dramatic contrasts in gradations of sound as if one were traveling up and down hills. Todd Williams on natural horn managed to coax notes not commonly available on that instrument. Andrew Schwartz on classical period bassoon needed to blow so much harder than a contemporary bassoon and he did so, expertly. Wood, Miller, and Trout offered unified support in a piece that privileged first the violin, then the clarinet. The third movement presents an unusual minuet while the fourth movement ends with emphatic humor: a gentle, hesitant pause before the charming resolution. The surprising violin cadenza in the final movement lets you know that Beethoven thought more of the strings than winds. The Finale brought the audience to its feet; they demanded two, very long bows. This was a performance to remember at a well-attended event.

Aston Magna will conclude its summer concert season with “The Art of the Fugue,” fourteen canons on the bass line of the Goldberg Variations with a new arrangement by Daniel Stepner, on Saturday, July 21, at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington. Click this link for a brief interview with Daniel Stepner.