Aston Magna At 40: Still Going for Baroque
As Aston Magna, the summer music festival he founded in Great Barrington, readies for its 40th season, Lee Elman seems as if he were born to the role of Berkshires cultural patriarch.
His parents Barney and Mildred were early supporters of Tanglewood, making weekend visits from Westchester County and contributing to the original fund to build what became the Koussevitzky Music Shed. They brought young Lee to his first concert there in 1941. For much of his adult life he’s not only seen the cultural life of the region flourish, but added his own ace to the deck of Berkshire music festivals .
Named for the Aston Magna estate Elman purchased in 1971, the Aston Magna Music Festival kicks off its landmark season in style this weekend. A concert at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall on June 9 will be followed by a gala reception at Cranwell, a short hop over to the other end of Lenox. (The same concert program, featuring Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 and other early-Classical favorites, will be performed the prior evening at Brandeis University, where the festival’s artistic director, Daniel Stepner, below, sits on the faculty.)
The Aston Magna festival lays claim to the title of longest continually operating early music series played on period-appropriate instruments. For much of its history, the festival focused on music from the 17th and 18th centuries—Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach are frequently revisited—though works by 19th century composers, such as Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms, have entered the repertoire, in contexts that highlight the influence of earlier styles on these later masters. Stepner makes a point to schedule seasons showcasing a mix of moods and styles, including chamber opera, pieces for solo instruments, and madrigals, the secular vocal pieces dating to the Renaissance and early Baroque period.
“A lot of people didn’t think we would last, for a number of reasons,” says Elman, seated in the living room of the main house at Aston Magna. “Some people thought the music was too precious, that we wouldn’t be able to attract the audience. Some people thought Great Barrington, which at the time was more of a blue-collar, post-industrial town, would not embrace it. But we survived. And now it’s a staple of Great Barrington, so to speak.”
Indeed, the article on Smithsonian.com citing Great Barrington as the best small town in America counted the Aston Magna festival among area’s chief virtues.
Elman divides his time between Great Barrington and New York City, where he is the principal of Elman Investors, the real estate investment firm he founded in 1979. The spirit of the festival flows from the history of the Aston Magna estate, which was built in 1917 by art collector Charles Freer near the end of his life. By 1925, noted concert violinist Albert Spalding and his wife Mary began renting it for summers; they purchased the property four years later. During their long stewardship, their many visitors included luminaries from the music world as well as one amateur fiddler by the name of Albert Einstein. (Fortunately, Einstein never did quit his day job.)
After Elman and his first wife purchased the estate in late 1971 following the death of the Spaldings, he wasted no time before creating the Aston Magna Music Festival, which he inaugurated the next summer with three chamber music concerts in the personal rehearsal studio (in photo, right) built by the violinist in a pine grove near the main house. For many years the festival was based at St. James Episcopal Church in downtown Great Barrington. In 2003 the festival moved to its current, air-conditioned home at the Daniel Arts Center of Simon’s Rock College of Bard. Of late, concert weekends feature a Simon’s Rock performance bookended by concerts at Bard College and Brandeis University.
The curatorial viewpoint of the Aston Magna festival originated with the late Albert Fuller, the festival’s founding artistic director and a renowned harpsichordist and Baroque music specialist. Elman says he was open to a focus on any number of Classical styles, but recruited Fuller, in part, for his organizational acumen and desire to build an institution. (Indeed, Fuller stayed on the job for nearly 20 years.) Though the use of period instruments shows a healthy respect for the music’s history, the general spirit is one of vigorous musical inquiry rather than staid traditionalism. In recent years, the festival has even included work by contemporary composers juxtaposed with musically related pieces from the early-music canon.
“There’s so much imagination we need to bring to this music, and I think that’s one of the great challenges and one of the ways in which we feel creative. We’re not tending a museum piece, we’re bringing something to life,” says Stepner, who has served as artistic director since 1990.
Though not a highly practiced musician himself, Elman makes an art of curating— of bringing creative people together, and of showing off the rustic glamour to be found at high season in the Berkshire hills.
Unprompted, he pulls from his blazer a folded list of performing-arts festivals in the Berkshires; it’s a tally he updates yearly, with a mix of curiosity and pride.
“This is a remarkable combination of cultural activities for any area,” he says of this region. “I think it’s the greatest cultural venue in the United States, if not the world. Nothing can compare to it.”
—Jeremy D. Goodwin