A night for the future of Philadelphia classical music

Donald Hunt recaps a contemporary concert that evoked the spirit of Philadelphia, with one Barber work thrown in for good measure. -- Artblog editor

What do Samuel Barber, Melinda Wagner, Efrain Amaya, and Michael Djupstrom have in common with each other? All of them were born in the greater Philadelphia area! For one special night at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater on March 10, Astral Artists and Symphony in C united to present Beyond Barber: Composing Philadelphia.

Outstanding compositions and performances

michael djupstrom
Michael Djupstrom, courtesy of the artist.

The opener, Michael Djupstrom’s “Suite from The Wedding” (its world premiere), evoked the sound and feel of a classic film score that Eric Korngold would be inclined to compose if he were here in the present day. From the opening with its delicately phrased harp solo by principal harpist Abigail Kent to its explosive final measures, the suite made a lasting impression. It will hopefully enjoy many more performances with some of the country’s major orchestras.

Melinda Wagner’s “Extremity of Sky” concerto for piano and orchestra (its Philadelphia premiere) featured Henry Kramer, a piano soloist who won the Astral National Auditions in 2014. The first movement played as more of a tasty teaser to how the entire concerto would play out, with the piano’s numerous tremolos trading off with the woodwinds’ complex runs. The second movement was even more vigorous in its overall tone, developing the relationship between piano and orchestra as they dug into the thematic meat of the concerto.

henry kramer
Henry Kramer, courtesy of Astral Artists.

One of the memorable moments of the concerto was a section performed as a string quartet (concertmaster, principal violinist, violist, and cello) which then swiftly returned to its tutti form. This was a chamber orchestra, which exuded warmth on its own, but to break into a string quartet even for a few measures made it even more intimate. The quartet returned in the fourth movement.

The orchestra was just as much the star of the concerto as Kramer until the fourth and final movement, when his lithe technical command took over with this section’s exuberantly paced tempo.

benito meza
Benito Meza, courtesy of Astral Artists.

Efrain Amaya’s “Wuaraira Repano” for clarinet and chamber orchestra (its Philadelphia premiere) was chock-full of personality. The clarinet soloist was Benito Meza, winner of the Astral National Auditions in 2009. Meza has a clear and piercing sound, highlighted when Amaya let the clarinet sing in a folk-like melody that meets New Orleans blues.


Finally, we had Samuel Barber’s “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra,” a standard violin concerto that any serious violinist has in their back pocket. The soloist here was the highly skilled Nikki Chooi, winner of the Astral National Auditions in 2003 and new member of Time for Three, whom I covered for the Artblog in 2014. The movement that I couldn’t wait to hear was the third and final movement (Presto), which has to be one of my favorite movements of any violin concerto. This particular movement is fast as lightning and you can’t take your ears away from what the violin is conveying in both precision and sheer technical flair.

At the end of each movement, music director Stilian Kirov brought each composer from the audience to take their bow. Even for the deceased Barber, Kirov lovingly stated, “Barber is here with us in spirit.” One thing I know for sure is that the Philadelphia spirit was felt in this concert and our city is in capable hands to continue the next classical music movement—whatever and however that may sound.

Founded in 1992, Astral Artists‘ mission as a nonprofit organization is to serve as an “intensive mentoring program that specializes in developing the early careers of extraordinary classical musicians”. Symphony in C (founded in 1952) was established as a “training” orchestra for up-and-coming musicians who are currently enrolled or recently graduated from prestigious conservatories or music programs at universities/colleges.