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Aston Magna opens 45th season with ‘Music for Forbidden Dances’

The program blends the magic of tango, chacanas and sarabands – tracing the dance forms’ origins in Latin America from baroque times to the present -- with early music selections that are the hallmark of Aston Magna.

Great Barrington — The racy history of the Argentinian tango, thought to have its genesis in the slums of Buenos Aires, stands in seemingly stark contrast to the baroque and early classic era music that serves as the core repertoire for Daniel Stepner and his Aston Magna ensemble. This veritable “time travel,” as coined by Stepner, is perhaps not such a stretch. On Saturday, June 17th, the Aston Magna Music Festival‘s 45th season opens in the Berkshires with Hector del Curto, Argentinian master of the bandoneon, presenting a sultry slice of South American tango, chacanas and sarabands in “Music for Forbidden Dances.” He is joined by Frank Kelley, tenor, and the Aston Magna ensemble of early music masters, playing on period instruments, for the launch of the Festival’s six-week season.

Aston Magna Artistic Director and violinist Daniel Stepner.

Opening weekend blends the magic of tango, chacanas and sarabands – tracing the dance forms’ origins in Latin America from baroque times to the present — with early music selections that are the hallmark of Aston Magna. The program features the music of Arañes, Bach, Bertali, Merula, Purcell, Corelli and Rodriquez. “Some may say we are crossing over (in both directions!) into foreign territory,” says Artistic Director Daniel Stepner, “But I would respectfully counter that our intent is consistent: to bring to life worthy music of the past in the light of its composers’ intent as they worked within the constraints of their particular worlds.” At the center of this cross over — explored by other musicians including classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma who collaborated on the Soul of the Tango a decade ago — is the bandoneon, considered the leading lady of the tango and other South American dance music, and she comes alive in the hands of a master, Hector del Curto.

“The bandoneon – that essential instrument in any authentic tango ensemble,” Stepner explains, “was invented and developed in Germany.” He goes on to note, “Astor Piazzolla and his disciples, including Hector del Curto, have raised tango music to a high art form whose appeal derives partly from the fact that despite its sophisticated evolution, tango hasn’t lost something of its original sassiness, darkness, and strangely bewitching mix of violence and tenderness.” Hector del Curto explains, “I was not very communicative when I was a kid. It was hard for me to express, to say words of affection…I finally found a voice in the bandoneon. I found a language in tango.” Concertgoers will have the chance to meet del Curto and the Aston Magna musicians in person following the June 17 concert at Saint James Place in Great Barrington, at a post-concert wine and cheese reception with the artists. Aston Magna’s concerts are marked by their intimacy, as early music is intended to convey, and all are welcome to attend.

Hector del Curto
Hector del Curto

In his detailed program notes, Stepner writes “both the stately sarabande and the chaconne of the late baroque had rather checkered pasts. In late 16th and early 17th century Spain, they were low-life dance-songs: fast, provocatively syncopated, often with racy texts. Their burgeoning popularity in Spain and elsewhere worried both Church and State, and these dances were banned at various times and places, which only made them more popular. They spread like wildfire throughout Europe and beyond, much like recent dance crazes today.” Stepner goes on to explain, “Perhaps most astonishingly: both these dances apparently had roots in the Hispanic New World, like so many popular dances today.” This contemporary connection is paramount, as it serves as a bridge linking tradition and history with contemporary culture as a means of inviting a wider group to the proverbial conversation.

Aston Magna, the nation’s longest running summer festival of early music, features period instruments in the hands of virtuoso performers and the finest early music vocalists. Their historic 45th anniversary season coincides with the group’s return to the newly unveiled Saint James Place, the former St. James Episcopal Church, where the group began more than four decades ago. The mission of the Aston Magna Foundation is to enrich the appreciation of music of the past and the understanding of the cultural, political, and social contexts in which it was composed and experienced.

Clarinetist Eric Hoeprich will perform with Aston Magna on
Clarinetist Eric Hoeprich will perform with Aston Magna on June 24.

Since 1972, Aston Magna has forged an important and unique place in American cultural life. Founded by Lee Elman and the late Albert Fuller, the Aston Magna Music Festival, now under the musical direction of Daniel Stepner, is America’s oldest annual summer festival devoted to music performed on period instru­ments. Aston Magna’s pioneering his­­tory includes the first American perform­ances of the complete Bach Brandenburg Concer­tos and the first Mozart symphonies on original in­stru­ments. Aston Magna seeks to inter­pret the music of the past as the composer imagined it. Original period instru­ments — or his­torical­ly accurate repro­ductions – are essential performance elements. Performance tech­niques are ap­pro­priate to the period, national styles, culture and aesthetics of the time.

For more information visit, or consult the Berkshire Edge Calendar for tickets and information. Advance tickets are $40, $45 at the door; $15 for those under 30; $5 for students with ID; and up to two children accompanied by an adult are free.

Five Saturdays of early music follow through July 22, with instrumental and vocal music ranging from Mozart to Paganini, Beethoven, Trombocino, Handel and more. Enjoy a pre-concert talk one hour before each curtain; a wine and cheese reception with the artists follows.

On June 24, Guest artist Eric Hoeprich, a master of the historical clarinet, joins the ensemble for “Late, Great Mozart,” including The Clarinet Quintet. Selections: K. 563 and K. 581.

Brazilian violinist Edson Scheid will perform Paganini and Beethoven on July 15.
Brazilian violinist Edson Scheid will perform Paganini and Beethoven on July 15.

On July 1, soprano Dominique Labelle returns to perform in “Arias, Sinfonias and Biblical Oratorios” with the Aston Magna string ensemble. Selections by Caldara, Handel, Purcell and Clerambault. The July 1 event is followed by a special cocktail “anniversary” reception at the historic Aston Magna estate in Great Barrington.

On July 8, Brazilian violinist Edson Scheid presents for a solo performance of “Paganini: The 24 Caprices for Violin; on July 15, “Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata and its Mozartean Models” are performed by with Daniel Stepner, violin, and guest artist David Hyun-Su Kim, fortepiano, who present sonatas by Beethoven and Mozart.

For its final performance on July 22, the Aston Magna ensemble performs “Voices and Viols: Music from the Court of Isabella D’Este” with mezzo-soprano Deborah Rentz-Moore and tenor Aaron Sheehan, with a consort of viols and music by Josquin, Agricola, Obrecht, Busnois, Isaac, Tromboncino.


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