by Michel Caruso

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, hosted the second in its series of “Five Fridays” chamber music recitals Nov. 14. The performers were clarinetist Benito Meza, cellist Christine Lamprea and pianist Pallavi Mahidhara, presented under the auspices of Astral Artists. They were heard in a program that featured music composed by Brahms, Beethoven and Paquito D’Rivera.

The entire five-date series is a fundraiser for the Northwest Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network and Face-to-Face Germantown, two organizations that help individuals and families move from homeless shelters into affordable housing. All the proceeds from the series go to the two charitable organizations.

The well-attended recital opened with a rendition of Brahms’ “Trio for Piano, Clarinet & Cello in A minor. It was a performance I found less than altogether convincing.

The clarinet, not invented as the instrument we know today until the 18th century, is remarkable for the broad spectrum of timbres it can project. Its upper register can be as brilliant as that of a trumpet, its middle register can offer the strong tones of a violin, and its lower register can be as mellow as a viola. When Brahms composed this particular Trio late in his life (by the way, not the dates given in the program for either Brahms – actually 1833-97 – or Beethoven – 1770-1827), he did so with the full palette of colors the clarinet can produce in mind. Meza’s sound was more shrill than brilliant at the top and rather muddy at the bottom, with only the middle range coming across as the composer intended.

This lack of tonal variety was made all the worse by the surprisingly muffled sound Mahidharra elicited from the church’s vintage Steinway grand piano. Whereas Brahms intended the piano to evoke the full spectrum of sounds of at least a chamber orchestra, this time around there was little distinction to the textures or articulation of the counterpoint.

Only Lamprea met the challenges of the score: declaiming powerfully yet singing sweetly. But with only one voice out of three offering a full-bodied contribution to the score’s magnificent counterpoint and propulsive development, rather than an energetic debate among a trio of equals, it’s not surprising that the work failed to make its potential impact.

Beethoven’s “Piano Trio in B-flat major” received a far more efficacious interpretation. The delightful brilliance of its opening Allegro con brio, the melting lyricism of its second movement Adagio, and the powerful sense of inevitability of its closing Theme & Variations were handled beautifully. All three players offered well-matched contributions to the musical dialo

The evening was brought to the colorful close with Rivera’s “Invitation to the Dance.” The next recital in the “Five Fridays” series is scheduled for Feb. 20 and will feature soprano Kathryn Guthrie, bass-baritone Adam Fry, and pianist Andrew Hauze. For more information, visit


The Curtis Opera Theatre paired two one-act operas for a quartet of performances this weekend. One, Rossini’s “La scala di seta,” is rarely seen or heard; the other, Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi,” is among the most popular works in the standard repertoire. Both received memorable mountings in the Prince Music Theater.

Curtis wisely placed the Rossini first on the bill. Although it sports an absolutely lovely score, both vocally and instrumentally, Giuseppe Maria Foppa’s libretto doesn’t even make sense within the context of Italian comic opera libretti. It doesn’t place a single convincing character onstage, and its line of narrative development goes so far beyond convoluted that it’s a hopeless jumble – all the more so now that the original Italian is translated into English supertitles shown above the stage. Unfortunately, Stephanie Havey’s direction made matters worse by having her cast indulge in over-inflating every gesture – even to the point of offering distracting and uncalled-for nonsense during the playing of the opera’s exceptionally beautiful overture.

Yet Conductor Lio Kuokman led the Curtis Symphony Orchestra superbly and subtly, eliciting some of the most exquisite soft playing I’ve heard all season. It’s an equal of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. And several members of the cast sang with equal beauty, none more so than tenor Mingjie Lei. If ever Curtis’ opera department was about to produce another tenor like Juan Diego Florez, Lei could be the one. His voice is smoothly produced across its full range and its projection was equally seamless and unforced.

Havey’s directorial style worked more organically and, therefore, more effectively in “Gianni Schicchi.” Giovacchino Forzano’s libretto, based on an episode from Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” is peopled by so many over-the-top caricatures committing so many insufferable offenses that one could hardly gild this lily for all the gilding that’s already there.

Once again, Kuokman drew splendid playing from the Curtis Symphony, but here the entire cast performed with exemplary theatricality and memorable musicality. Soprano Ashley Robillard sang Lauretta’s aria with tonal warmth and melting lyricism, Evan LeRoy Johnson fearlessly sang Rinuncio’s arias with ringing high notes perfectly on the mark, and baritone Sean Michael Plumb was an incredibly appealing Gianni Schicchi, winning the audience to his side against Dante’s condemnation. He sang and acted with impressive poise.

Next on the docket for the Curtis Institute of Music will be a Sunday, Jan. 25, concert by the Curtis Symphony Orchestra at 3 p.m. in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. Osmo Vanska will conduct Sibelius’ “Swan of Tuonela” and Fifth Symphony – both favorites of the late Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra – and Lutoslawski’s “Concerto for Orchestra.” And the Curtis Opera Theatre will join forces with Opera Philadelphia and the Kimmel Center for Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” March 4, 6 and 8 in the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater. For ticket information, call 215-893-1999 or visit