High atop a magnificant perch in Great Barrington and spreading over 100 acres, with soaring Austrian pines and heart-stopping vistas, is the 1918 Aston Magna estate, for which the Aston Magna Music Festival is named.
Aston Magna Music Festival Founder Lee Elman has owned this pristine gem for more than 40 years, but its musical history precedes him and his family by decades. Where some property owners would memorialize their beloved hill top sanctuary in paintings or pictures, Elman chose to define the experience of the Aston Magna estate through music. He commissioned the young composer Nico Muhly to achieve the task, and Muhly spent two weekends exploring the estate and its iconic nooks and crannies. The stone house at the top of the hill was built by Charles Freer — of the famed Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C — and originally housed Freer’s famous oriental art collection. Freer died shortly after the estate’s completion, and the property was later acquired by Albert and Mary Spalding, a distinguished New York family, who named the home Aston Magna, for a favorite English village in the Cotswolds.
Mr. Spalding, the first American violinist of world stature, with his brother founded the A. G. Spalding sporting goods company. It was Albert Spalding who eventually remodeled a playhouse on the property into a charming, sound-proof and accoustically perfect studio under the tall pines. This was his practice studio, where he worked during summer months leading up to his worldwide tours. Eventually, this studio became the site for elegant concerts for friends and associates. Later, after her husband’s death, Mary Spalding devoted her efforts to enhancing the landscape and lush flower gardens throughout the property.
Upon her death in 1970, the property was bequeathed to the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, as a memorial to her late husband. But maintaining the property proved complex and costly, and Lee Elman acquired the estate in 1971. The following year, he was inspired by the music studio and the property’s history to establish the Aston Magna Foundation for Music. Originally, concerts were held at the idyllic estate, but as the years have passed, Aston Magna Music Festival’s success led to more ample concert locations — in the Berkshires, Boston and the Hudson Valley of New York.
Meanwhile an adjacent property called Logarythms, incorporated into the state in 1964, became headquarters for the foundation and its teaching initiatives. More recently, the estate has become known for its horticultural wonders and more recently, a newly planted vineyard. The property has been lovingly preserved for sporting, horseback riding and agriculture, with six miles of trails now leading through the estate. Nico Muhly’s new work, Aston Magna, revolves around five rooms or settings on the estate — with a musically inspired movement for each beloved setting.