Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 25, 2018

REVIEW: Aston Magna Festival, "Baroque Cornucopia”

Aston Magna Festival, Great Barrington, MA
June 23, 2018
by Barbara Stroup

Coolness: weather - and performance. On an unseasonal cool afternoon, a stellar ensemble assembled by Music Director Daniel Stepner presented a performance that mixed old and new, reeds and strings, vocal and plucked sounds in a pleasing tour of music from 1685 to 2018. Including a world premier by a living composer on a program of Bach, Handel and Telemann put all four composers in the best possible company, surely a delight to the youthful Alex Burtzos, on hand for this first performance of his work.

Lacking, however, was that warm back and forth among the players that audiences appreciate seeing, as the musical line is traded from one instrument to the next. Rare was the glance or eye contact and minimal was the facial hint or exhibition of delight in the beauty of the sound they were making. And beautiful (but cool) perfection it was.

The program began with a familiar Brandenburg Concerto, played at a clipping along pace, and highlighting the accomplishments of Michael Sponseller in a breathtaking harpsichord cadenza, played on a double manual instrument. The robust, even sounds of the baroque bassoon were featured in the next program piece, a trio sonata by Telemann. Andrew Schwartz, brought a smooth clear tone to the program on his instrument, complementing Julie Leven’s baroque violin which held its own. The combination was exquisite.

Burtzos’ world premier – “The Hourglass Equation” – closed the first half of the program. Beginning and ending with long dissonant tones from the bassoon, flute and violin, it contained a brief, more lyrical section, challenging both the audience and the instrumentalists throughout with its very 20th century vibe.
Dominique Labelle

Dominique Labelle joined the instruments after intermission as the ensemble returned to the 18th century with two Handel arias and a Bach cantata. What riches! Her soprano voice amply filled the hall and blended aptly with the instrumental sound. Particularly moving was the use of diminuendo and ritardando in the “Fall asleep” section of Aria No. 3. One needed the excellent program notes by Joseph Orchard to place the piece in the context for which Bach composed it, as the lyric expressed delight in death and longing for the “cool soil of earth.”

The ensemble was also supported by the sound of Christopher Krueger’s baroque flute throughout much of the program. Loretta O’Sullivan’s solid continuo is always a delight, and she was joined by Anne Trout’s violone to further enhance the bassline throughout most of the program. Aston Magna continues to provide solid programming and excellence in performance to the summer festival season in the Berkshires.