Daniel Stepner remembers what Aston Magna was like at its beginning. Or near its beginning, anyway: He attended the summer music festival in Great Barrington as a violin student in 1973, the year after its founding by harpsichordist Albert Fuller and Lee Elman , a businessman and music lover who is still on its board.
Aston Magna was the first American festival devoted to music played on period instruments. In the days before the early music explosion, doing this carried a hint of subversion, something that appealed to the young Stepner and jibed with the late-’60s/early-’70s mood of rebellion. “It was partly the counterculture that appealed to us,” he said during a recent phone interview. “It was definitely edgy then, and off the beaten track.”
This summer Aston Magna celebrates its 40th anniversary, kicking off its season with a gala concert at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall on Saturday. (A preview performance at Brandeis University, where Stepner is on the faculty, will take place on Friday.) After intermittent visits to the festival over the years, Stepner became its artistic director in 1990. Of course, the artistic ecosphere has changed during Aston Magna’s four decades, and a summer early-music festival is no longer a rarity. “Things have changed,” said Stepner. “It’s become a little bit mainstream.”
But he thinks that Aston Magna, and early music in general, have retained at least some of that air of heterodoxy. “Certainly, there are kids going into it now, still with a feeling that they’re doing something edgy and with some risk, and something they weren’t trained to do in their early training. And I felt that, too.”
Like any long-running institution, Aston Magna in its current formation is a balance between tradition and change. It’s still based in Great Barrington, with a regular concert series at Bard College at Simon’s Rock (and another at Bard College itself, about an hour away over the New York border). About 35 musicians attend, and there is a focus on chamber music and small ensemble works, with occasional forays into chamber opera.
The chamber operas are part of an increased focus on vocal music, a development that Stepner has shepherded. The festival has a steady core group of singers for its opera performances, while in most off years they sing a madrigal concert. One especially creative program last season traced the madrigal from the Renaissance up to works by Debussy and Ravel. Aside from occasional visits to the late 19th and 20th centuries — one program this season contains one of Villa-Lobos’s “Bachianas Brasileiras” — the festival’s core repertoire runs from the 17th century to the early 19th.
Of course, there’s a lot to be explored in that block of time, and Stepner says that one of the thrills of early music is just how much music there is still to be discovered, studied, debated, and worked out in performance. That enthusiasm has carried through Aston Magna undimmed.
“I think there was a great interest in discovering new music that wasn’t well known,” he said. “Part of that was that even Bach and better known music had so few directions in it. It challenged our imagination. And that remains true of early music.”
Different strands of what the festival is about come together in the program for the anniversary concerts. Bach’s First Brandenburg Concerto offers a subtle reminder that Aston Magna was the first American group to perform all six of the concertos on period instruments. Vocal selections include Monteverdi madrigals and excerpts from Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” and Handel’s first oratorio, “The Triumph of Time and Truth.” The Handel — an infrequently performed work that Aston Magna brought on tour in both America and Europe — remains one of Stepner’s proudest accomplishments during his tenure.
He also spoke with pride about the Aston Magna Academies, three-week gatherings of musicians and humanities scholars that brought together concerts and lectures in a rich cultural immersion. That pride, however, was mixed with regret, since the last Academy occurred in 1997 and “we haven’t done a lot of that recently because [funding] has dried up a lot. I hope we can revive that.” More than once, in fact, Stepner mentioned that the festival has “had to draw in its horns a bit” because of the straitened circumstances that have affected virtually every group over the last several years.
One more nod to Aston Magna’s history occurs in the summer’s final program, for which Stepner will team with violinist Stanley Ritchie, one of the festival’s founding musicians, and students for performances of violin concertos by Vivaldi and Bach. “Three generations of Aston Magna violinists,” he said, then added, “it’ll be a lot of rosin dust.”
Aston Magna Music Festival
40th Anniversary Gala Concerts
At: Slosberg Auditorium, Brandeis University,
Friday, 8 p.m. Tickets: $25.
At: Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Saturday, 6 p.m. Tickets: $50.