Continuing its season of “Five Fridays: Concerts for Community,” St. Paul’s Episcopal Church held a recital that featured cellist Thomas Mesa (pictured) and pianist Natalia Kazaryan. (Photo courtesy of Leslie Johnson)

by Michael Caruso

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, continued its season of “Five Fridays: Concerts for Community” Nov. 9 with a recital featuring cellist Thomas Mesa and pianist Natalia Kazaryan. The two young musicians, both alumni of the Juilliard School and represented by the locally based Astral Artists, performed a program featuring works by Bach, Beethoven, Debussy and Rachmaninoff. The evening’s two principal works were both sonatas for cello & piano: Debussy’s Sonata in D minor and Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G minor, Opus 19. It’s unlikely that two more different works from around the same period of time — turn of the 19th century into the 20th — could have been brought together in a single program.

Whereas Debussy’s opus came toward the end of his life — he died in 1918 — the Rachmaninoff was an early effort. When Debussy composed his Sonata, World War I was still being fought, with Paris itself under siege, and the composer was facing what turned out to be terminal colorectal cancer. Rachmaninoff, on the other hand, had just come through successful psychotherapy to overcome severe doubts regarding his talents as a composer.  His Sonata followed immediately on the heels of his Second Piano Concerto, Opus 18; that score remains the most popular piano concerto ever written.

While Debussy’s opus is stark and gloomy, though beautiful, of course, in a mysteriously evocative sort of way, the Rachmaninoff is romantically explosive in a uniquely Russian manner of emotionally charged gestures. I found Mesa and Kazaryan’s playing at their best in the Rachmaninoff. Through broadly spanned dynamics, dramatic colorings, telling textures, phrases shaped through rubato and thrusting rhythms, they caught the tumultuous spirit of the music.

I thought they were interpretively unsure of themselves in the Debussy. From a purely sonic standpoint, it all went well enough throughout the score’s three movements. But I never felt that they entered into the soul of the music, that premonition the composer must have sensed that the glorious world of France’s “Belle Epoch” was crashing down around his head as a result of the “Great War” that not only didn’t end all wars but that led directly into World War II and that should never have been fought in the first place.

Pianist Natalia Kazaryan (pictured) and cellist Thomas Mesa both graduated from the Juilliard School and are represented by the locally based Astral Artists. (Photo courtesy of Leslie Johnson)


Pennsylvania Ballet continued its 2018-19 season this past weekend with five performances of one fairly new ballet and two commissioned world premieres at the Merriam Theater. The works were Jili Kylian’s “Petite Mort,” Andrea Miller’s “Evenings” and Russell Ducker’s “This Divide.” Although all three were danced splendidly, and while I commend artistic director Angel Corella for staging them, I came away won over by only “Petite Mort.” Set to the slow movements of Mozart Piano Concerti No. 23 in A major and No. 21 in C major, “Petite Mort” focuses on six pairs of dancers shown to express the lyrical beauty of the music through elegant gestures and intertwining movements. Particular standouts Saturday evening were the exquisitely intense Oksana Maslova paired with the dynamically compelling Sterling Baca as well as the passionate pairing of Dayesi Torriente with Arian Molina Soca.

Miller’s choice of music — works by Arvo Part — assured that the sound of her commissioned ballet would evoke otherworldly spirituality. Although I found Michael Korsch’s lighting so lugubrious as to have confused “Evenings” with the deadest of night, Miller’s movements and pairings offered the image of the fears we all experience upon the setting of the sun. Maslova, who is now a resident of Roxborough, danced beautifully, as did company veteran Ian Hussey. Also praiseworthy was Albert Gordon’s dancing in the slow middle section of “Evenings.”

Although company dancer Russell Ducker’s commissioned “This Divide” was the evening’s most thought-provoking work, it fell prey to having ignored a warning not to allow a prop to dominate the choreography. In this case, that prop was a huge staircase with a door at its top. I suspect that that door symbolized the divisions among us. However, watching the dancers move it here, there and everywhere across the stage often proved more interesting than the choreography itself, even though it was danced spectacularly well. Lillian DiPiazza, Mayara Pineiro and Sterling Baca were particularly impressive, with Baca bringing the impact of a dramatic narrative to abstract choreography, eliminating the line that separates the dancer from the dance.

Next on the roster for Pennsylvania Ballet is “The Nutcracker” Dec. 7-31. Visit

The pairing of Oksana Maslova (left) and Sterling Baca made for one of the standouts of the Pennsylvania Ballet’s performance of “This Divide.” (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev)


Over the span of only six days, I had the chance to hear both of Philadelphia’s symphony orchestras in concert at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. Adding to that pleasure was that of hearing a newly released CD of one of those two ensembles playing two selections from a repertoire near and dear to the heart of its legacy. The first on the docket was the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, which performed a 90th birthday tribute to its former director, pianist Gary Graffman. The second was the Philadelphia Orchestra, which is the ensemble featured in the CD. Giancarlo Guerrero was the conductor with the Curtis Symphony Oct. 28, David Afkham was the conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra Nov. 3, and the ensemble’s music director, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, was on its podium for the CD.

Repertoire and structure made interesting comparisons between the two concerts. Both followed relatively faithfully the traditional shape of overture-concerto-intermission-symphony. Guerrero led his incredibly talented young charges in Augusta Reed Thomas’ “Brio,” Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Opus 30, with Curtis alumnus Haochen Zhang as soloist, and Igor Stravinsky’s 1947 revision of the four tableaux from his ballet score, “Petrushka.” Afkham’s program boasted Beethoven’s “Coriolan” Overture, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466, with Seong-Jin Cho as soloist, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68.

For the CD, Nezet-Seguin chose Russian virtuoso Daniil Trifonov as the soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Concertos No. 2 in C minor, Opus 18, and No. 4 in G minor, Opus 40. Rachmaninoff himself recorded both works with the “Fabulous Philadelphians” with past music directors Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy, respectively. For anyone who bemoans the disappearance of the famous Stokowski/Ormandy “Philadelphia Sound,” there’s no need to despair. It’s alive and well in the halls of the Curtis Institute of Music, where the Curtis Symphony can conjure it up out of the past for a concert in the present. Most especially in Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto but also in Stravinsky’s “Petrushka,” those lustrous strings, glowing woodwinds, refined brass and scintillating percussion were brought to bear with stunning effect. “Petrushka,” in particular, came alive with pagan vitality coursing through shimmering timbres and demonic rhythms.

In the Rachmaninoff, Guerrero had the benefit of the exemplary young soloist, Haochen Zhang, a gold medal winner of the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition and a student of Gary Graffman. The young virtuoso played this most demanding of all piano concerti with unflappable technical prowess and, more importantly, a consummate feel for the inconsolable melancholy with which Rachmaninoff invested every measure of the score. If in “Petrushka,” Stravinsky was the Russian looking fearfully forward into the future, Rachmaninoff was the compatriot looking soulfully and sadly backward to the past. Both somehow recognized that things were about to change, and both were right. World War I, together with its second act, World War II, was about to break the arc of progress of European culture that had been maintained for nearly the past thousand years. Guerrero and Zhang phrased and voiced every line with throbbing emotion, yet neither allowed their sentiments to wallow into sentimentality. The performance pulsed with electricity as it sang with heartbreak.

Seong-Jin Cho was an indifferent soloist in the Mozart, but vestigial memories of countless Ormandy concerts and recordings enabled David Afkham to lead the Philadelphians in a fine reading of Brahms’ First Symphony. Yannick Nezet-Seguin couldn’t have picked a better contemporary collaborator than Daniil Trifonov for the CD linking Rachmaninoff’s deservedly beloved Second and unfairly underappreciated Fourth Piano Concerti. The young Russian must have been channeling the composer himself during these “live in concert” recordings. He eschewed even a hint of self-indulgence in the Second, driving its gorgeous melodies, harmonies and scorings directly to their points of destination. In the more astringent Fourth, he highlighted Rachmaninoff’s unique brand of lyricism within the context of a newly minted muscularity. Although Nezet-Seguin’s way with the Philadelphians could never be confused with that of either Stokowski or Ormandy, it was nonetheless compellingly idiomatic in both Concerti.

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