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Aston Magna’s captivating performances of baroque ‘Love and Lamentation’

The Aston Magna players know what their performances should sound like before they play music that hasn’t been heard in hundreds of years.

Great Barrington — If the appeal of early music is lost on you, then maybe you’re not getting enough Aston Magna. Bard College at Simon’s Rock hosted the ensemble’s sold-out concert on Saturday, June 18 in the Daniel Arts Center with a program titled “Love and Lamentation” about Claudio Monteverdi’s influence on the music and musicians of his day, particularly in Rome and Venice.

Early music never sounded sweeter.

The Aston Magna ensemble is made up of eminent early music scholars and professors, all of whom are virtuosos on their respective instruments. Period instruments. Rare instruments you’ve probably never seen or even heard of.

The group’s all-star lineup varies according to the piece they’re performing. On June 18 the musicians onstage were:

Erin Headley —  lirone, viola da gamba, director

Nell Snaidas —  and Kristen Watson —  sopranos

Daniel Stepner  baroque violin

Laura Jeppesen  baroque violin, viola da gamba

Catherine Liddell  theorbo

Michael Sponseller  harpsichord, organ

Erin Headley, playing the lirone. Photo: David Edwards
Erin Headley, playing the lirone. Photo: David Edwards

Early music performances showcase not only the composers of a certain era but also the instruments they wrote for, such as the viola da gamba, theorbo, lirone, and others that appear only rarely in the modern orchestral repertory. Early music gets its signature sound from the sonic characteristics of these period instruments, but advanced musicianship is required to make the music sound consistently wonderful. The Aston Magna players not only have virtuosity in spades, they also have encyclopedic knowledge of early music, so they know what their performances should sound like before they play music that hasn’t been heard in hundreds of years.

In a pre-concert lecture, Aston Magna Artistic Director and Brandeis Professor of Music Daniel Stepner described the religious and sociopolitical milieu of the age in which Monteverdi and his contemporaries composed the pieces on Saturday’s program. Guest Director Erin Headley then gave a brief history of the lirone —  a fretted 17th-century precursor of the cello — and demonstrated the instrument’s surprising capabilities (like playing chords).

The program began with Claudio Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo,” the 1607 piece that exerted such a powerful influence on composers Biagio Marini, Marco Marazzoli, and Luigi Rossi. All three were active during Monteverdi’s lifetime, and each of them appeared in turn on Saturday’s program.

In her brilliant program notes, Ms. Headley explains how the evening’s second piece, Monteverdi’s “Lamento d’Arianna,” ushered in a new genre of dramatic music by “placing primacy of words over music and by focusing on a solo voice with a single plucked instrument.” Many scholars consider this the birth of opera. Others point to  “L’Orfeo” when speculating about opera’s origins. In any case, Venice opened its first permanent opera theater about 23 years after “Lamento d’Arianna” first appeared.

Aston Magna with sopranos Kristen Watson, left, and Nell Snaidas as Eurydice and Orfeo in Luigi Rossi's 'Orfeo.' Photo: David Edwards
Aston Magna with sopranos Kristen Watson, left, and Nell Snaidas as Eurydice and Orfeo in Luigi Rossi’s ‘Orfeo.’ Photo: David Edwards

All the pieces following Intermission were by Luigi Rossi, and it was during his “Orfeo” that time seemed to stand still as the evening’s music reached a zenith of preternatural beauty. The moment came during the first act, and Ms. Headley explains it thus: “The seductive power of music comes to the fore in Act I, with elegant and lyrical bel canto melodies entwined in the magic of two equal voices (Euridice and Orfeo). The spellbinding atmosphere captivates and mesmerizes the attendant nymphs, shepherds, and gods . . .”

It also captivates and mesmerizes everyone in the audience.

“Orfeo,” as written, contains plenty of inherent magic. But you wouldn’t hear it without the interpretive sensitivity and technical skills you get only from world-class sopranos of Aston Magna caliber. It would be like hearing Chopin played on a fairly good upright piano.

Nell Snaidas and Kristen Watson combine excellent musicianship with refined artistic sensibilities to make vocal bliss happen. Without their special touch on “Orfeo” (and other pieces) Rossi’s music would have sounded relatively commonplace. Acceptable but not transcendent.

Mere competence from any member of the Aston Magna ensemble would have been insufficient on Saturday. With early music in particular, only excellence will do. That’s why you hear popular confections like Nessun Dorma sung on American Idol but never anything from the Baroque era or earlier.

Now in its 44th year, Aston Magna  will return to the Daniel Arts Center on June 25 with a Salomone Rossi-inspired program, “The Trio Sonata.”

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