by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, hosted the third in its series of “Five Fridays: Concerts for Community” Feb. 1. In collaboration with Astral Artists, the church presented violinist Kristin Lee, cellist Lionel Cottet and pianist Michael Mizrahi in piano trios by Beethoven, Ravel and Smetana before a crowd that virtually packed the Parish Hall.
Friday evening’s program was especially wisely chosen, particularly considering that it didn’t follow chronological order, which has become the norm for classical concerts. Usually the work composed earliest goes first, followed in order by the next and the next. In chamber music recitals such as this one, Beethoven’s “Piano Trio in D major, The Ghost,” would indeed have opened the concert. But it would have been Smetana’s “Piano Trio in G minor” that came next to end the first half. Most of the time it would have been Ravel’s “Piano Trio in A minor” that was played after intermission to finish out the evening.
The three young Astral musicians, however, followed the Beethoven with the Ravel to end the first half and left the Smetana for the recital’s finale. And it worked splendidly. The assembling of the program was proof of Astral Artists’ success at safely ushering young musicians out of the conservatory into the real world of professional musicians. Hats off to its founder and director, Vera Wilson. Of course, none of Astral’s expertise would mean a thing if Lee, Cottet and Mizrahi didn’t play well. Fortunately for Friday’s large audience, they played exceptionally well.
They chose a brisk tempo for the Beethoven’s opening Allegro vivace e con brio, establishing an energetic dialogue between their three instruments. They caught the somber, almost spooky quality of the slow second movement – hence the nickname “Ghost”! – and invested it with dark intensity. They then “turned on a dime” for the spritely Presto, playing with technical aplomb.
The recital took place in the Parish Hall instead of the back of St. Paul’s main sanctuary because work is being done on the latter. Although the Hall apparently doesn’t have a particularly good reputation as a venue for concerts, I found its acoustics more than adequate, even if its sight lines aren’t so good. “Five Fridays” continues March 15 with violist Born Lau and April 5 with the Trio Galilei, both at 7:30 p.m. The series benefits the Northwest Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network and Face-to-Face Germantown.
Pianist Andre Watts, who grew up in Germantown and attended both Pierce Junior College and the Philadelphia Musical Academy before studying at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, returned Friday and Saturday to play with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The German/Spanish conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos was on the podium in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall for a program that consisted of Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement of Bach’s Chorale Prelude: “Sleepers Awake,” Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Hindemith’s “Concert Music for Strings and Brass” and Liszt’s Symphonic Poem No. 3, “Les Preludes.”
Although the Philadelphians gave a sumptuous reading to Stokowski’s orchestration of Bach’s score for solo organ – Stokowski was, himself, a fine organist and knew the instrument intimately – their collaboration with Watts in Beethoven’s most popular piano concerto was cautious rather than magisterial, controlled rather than spontaneous.
The rendition given the Hindemith, on the other hand, was spectacular. Liszt’s “Les Preludes” may be a tad bombastic here and there, but it remains a tremendous crowd pleaser, especially when conducted with conviction and played with virtuosity, as it was Saturday night.