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Music REview

Vice proves harmonious at Aston Magna

WALTHAM — Aston Magna’s “Vice Squad” concert on Thursday — an early-music celebration of habit-forming substances — evinced great affection for its indulgences. Even the atmosphere was indulgent, usually serious classical-music concert deportment replaced by high spirits and hijinks, good-natured winks at bad behavior magnified to theatrical size.

Like many parties, though, it started slow. A tobacco-themed set began with Jean Solage’s 14th-century “Fumeux fume par fume,” tenor Frank Kelley and baritone Jesse Blumberg (with Laura Jeppesen on viola da gamba) exhaling clouds of French vowels. Tobias Hume’s “Tobacco” (with Blumberg and Jeppesen) and the J.S. Bach-attributed “Sooft ich meine Tabakspfeife” (Kelley — complete with pipe — joined by violinist Nancy Wilson and harpsichordist Michael Sponseller) had slow, deliberate humor, and tempos more characteristic of a different weed.


Things picked up, though, in songs about love — however disparaging — by Henry Purcell and Thomas Arne. The bawdiest complaints featured the most ingenious engineering: Kelley, Blumberg, and soprano Teresa Wakim (with violinist Daniel Stepner) doing canonic grousing in Purcell’s love-makes-you-drink “Upon Women’s Love,” then ping-ponging through Arne’s “The Maid’s With Child,” an uncertain-parentage vignette rendered as a meticulously intermingled call-and-response. In an excerpt from Bach’s “Amore traditore,” Blumberg sonorously, confidently pronounced that love stinks, but Sponseller’s perpetual-motion harpsichord suggested a hard habit to break.

Alcohol brought out the full ensemble (including flutist Christopher Krueger, cellist Loretta O’Sullivan, and Anne Trout on violone), as well as much staged drunkenness from the singers. (Kelley, throughout, spearheaded such clowning, with a fully stocked bar of gestures and accents.) After a discerningly woozy account of the sleepy drunks in Vivaldi’s “L'autumno” (from “The Four Seasons”), Purcell again provided most songs; an interpolated scene from his opera “The Fairy Queen,” Stepner gruffly, gamely singing the part of a drunken poet while the trio teased him, epitomized wine-fueled extravagance: a dramatic throwaway lavished with unusually beautiful music.


Coffee was the final vice. Kelley sang Nicholas Bernier’s Baroque cantata “Le Caffé” with restraint, matching the music’s lilting elegance: neither buzz nor withdrawal, but the universe-aligning satisfaction of the morning’s first cup. Bach’s “Coffee Cantata” (BWV 211), its sitcom plot lightly, deftly staged (Blumberg an exasperated father, Wakim a texting, coffee-addicted daughter, Kelley both narrator and French-press-bearing suitor), featured seriously polished playing and singing. (Wakim’s soaring, silvery aria of devotion, sung to her thermos, was especially fine.) Bach’s denouement — the daughter forswears coffee to land a husband, but secretly arranges a caffeinated dowry —was an appropriately consequence-free finale. Just say yes.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at