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Daniel Stepner reflects on 30 years of musical life in Boston

“Boston audiences are very loyal and very educated,’’ says violinist Daniel Stepner.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/Globe staff

In recent decades, probably no string player in all of Greater Boston has been as ubiquitously present, in so many corners of the music scene, as violinist Daniel Stepner. This spring he retired from the Lydian String Quartet, with which he served as first violinist for 29 years. (Andrea Segar will succeed him in the fall.) Stepner also served as concertmaster of the Handel and Haydn Society for 24 years, taught at Brandeis University and Harvard University, and played in the Boston Museum Trio for 30 years.

As if that weren’t enough, Stepner has long been artistic director of Aston Magna, the oldest period-instrument festival in the country. On the eve of its new season — which runs from June 16 to July 9, with concerts at Brandeis and Bard College and in the Berkshires — Stepner spoke with the Globe about his tenure with the Lydians, his next chapter, and why, after completing graduate school at Yale University many moons ago, he made a fateful choice.


Q. How did you get your start with the Lydians, and, looking back on your decades with the quartet, what stands out?

A. Their first violinist, Wilma Smith, had been there for seven years, and then left to go back to her native New Zealand. I had played quartets quite a bit, and had tried to found one some years before, but we didn’t have the institutional support. So when this came open, I worked very hard at the audition, and fortunately they picked me.

It’s been a great run; I’m really very grateful to Brandeis and to my colleagues for the time I had there. There were a number of highs: the recording of the late Beethoven quartets, recording the first four Harbison quartets, and recording the under-appreciated quartets of [Vincent] Persichetti. In total, we have 20 commercial recordings out now, and I’m proud of that recorded legacy. But it felt like a good time to shift gears because I wanted to focus more on repertoire that I really want to play. One also wants to husband one’s strength as one gets older! [Laughs]


Q. There have been major changes in the chamber music world since you first entered it. Which are the most striking, from your vantage point?

A. The biggest change is just the sheer number of groups. When I joined the quartet in 1987, there were just a few quartets around. It was much easier to get a review than it is now, and while it was maybe more expensive to record, we could record what we wanted. I think there’s always been a lot of talent around, but now we just hear more of it. There are more ensembles, more orchestras, more competition, and more choices for audiences.

Q. Given that, would you say it’s actually easier or harder now for a young professional musician to get his or her start?

A. I would say it’s harder. There seem to be more freelance jobs in early music out there now, but many more people trying to make a living. Inevitably some will succeed and some won’t. But I think overall, the sense of creative ferment is healthy.

Q. What will your priorities be in the years ahead?

A. Aston Magna will be the main focus. This summer I’m directing three of the four programs. And I also wanted to involve Erin Headley, who has revived this wonderful 14-string gamba-like instrument called the lirone, and will be a guest director for a program of music by Monteverdi, Luigi Rossi, and Biagio Marini. Overall, I think music in the schools is crucial to building an audience of the future. My father was a public-school music teacher, and that’s partly where I get my values in public education.


Funding was much more generous a half-century ago than it is now, but I would still like [Aston Magna] to develop small-scale multimedia programs and offer them to public and private schools to help build the Baroque audience of the future. We are piloting this starting next November. And I’m hoping to revive the old Aston Magna Academies, these wonderful gatherings of scholars and musicians around a single musical theme. There were 11 in the ’80s and ’90s, and they brought together art historians, dance historians, and liberal arts teachers who wanted to deepen their understanding of a period through its arts. So that’s my dream. I also want to keep performing some contemporary music of my choice too.

Q. After years of performing in the city, and wearing so many different hats, how have you come to think about what, precisely, makes Boston’s classical scene unique — and what does it need most going forward?

A. I feel personally that I’ve been very lucky, and Boston has been a big part of that. I think the consciousness of both American history, and our relationship to past societies, is very strong here. And Boston audiences are also very loyal and very educated. After graduate school, I came here instead of New York because I wanted to do a wider variety of things, and it seemed that might be more possible here. This turned out to be true. In Boston at that time, there was this hunger to do something new in the early music world. And I was also playing [contemporary music] in Boston Musica Viva, and also freelancing on modern violin.


More broadly, I think there’s now a growing appreciation of music in general, but it needs to be directed. Classical music is wonderful for the range and size of its repertoire, and for the intimacy it offers by comparison with, say, a rock concert. But that needs to be nurtured by the government as it is in Europe — where the number of concerts, and the kinds of consortiums that make them possible, is a revelation. But overall, I’m very glad I had all of my different roles here — and I’m very happy now to be focusing more on one.


At Brandeis University, Waltham; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.; and Bard College at Simon’s Rock and Maihaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington. June 16-July 9. 888-492-1283, www.astonmagna.org

Interview was condensed and edited. Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com