GREAT BARRINGTON – The takeaway seemed to be that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Aston Magna opened its concert season Saturday night with “Music for Forbidden Dances.” The early music festival lifted its skirts and waded boldly into a program of risque dance pieces divided evenly between the baroque and the 20th century – sarabandes and chaconnes, followed by tangos.
Denunciations poured from the stage in spoken texts from the times, only for them to be contradicted by the seductions of the music. Stylish, lively and sometimes amusing or sublime performances by 10 musicians, in various combinations, spiced the invitation to sin.
Could those early dances, which seem like such innocent fun or charm today, really have been as much a threat to public morality as the tango seemed in more recent times?
The program was Aston Magna’s first in Saint James Place, the attractive, recent reincarnation of Saint James Episcopal Church, the festival’s home for much of its previous 44 years. A sizable, enthusiastic audience celebrated the occasion. The spacious room’s resonant acoustics flattered the instrumental ensemble but often blurred the spoken texts.
The program was bookended by pieces with a singer-speaker. First came a medley of early 17th century sarabandes and chaconnes interspersed with condemnations of the sinful forms by various contemporary sources. For a finale, there was “Tango,” a madcap theater piece by Robert Xavier Rodriguez. It came spiked with readings of 1913-14 news clips and church edicts reviling the dance even as it swept Latin America and Europe, dragging the populace into degradation.
Tenor Frank Kelley was the singer-speaker in both pieces. He turned downright manic in “Tango” as he variously impersonated a radio newscaster, a cardinal and a swooning dancer. The 25-minute piece, from 1986, owes something to the Brecht-Weill “Threepenny Opera”; some Schubert and the minuet from “Don Giovanni” provided occasions for further mayhem.
A bandoneon was at the center of the accompanying ensemble; a typewriter clicked away merrily. Unfortunately, much of the text was swallowed up by the acoustics and Kelley’s rapid-fire delivery. Still, why isn’t this visit with Satan better known?
Between the two anchor pieces came shorter pieces in the same genres, with some standout performances.
The heart of the program was two solo numbers by Bach: the stately sarabande from the Partita for flute, played by Diane Hefner on a chalumeau (early clarinet), and the staggering Chaconne from the Second Partita for violin, played on baroque violin by Daniel Stepner. The Stepner performance was a tour de force – virtuosic, of course, but fleeter and lighter in drama than is usual on modern instruments, with the rushing broken chords vividly delineated. In the tangos, Hector del Curto’s accordion-like sounds on the bandoneon lent a delicious Latin flavor. He was joined in the ensemble by his wife, cellist Jisoo Ok, and – in two pieces – by their 9-year-old son, Santiago, already a poised virtuoso on the clarinet. The audience gave him a roaring ovation.