Astral Artists offered up a Brahms festival of three concerts yesterday December 3 at the Church of the Holy Trinity at 1904 Walnut Street. About 6 hours of music at 1:00, 4:00, and 8:00 PM. I even gave up seeing Wisconsin edge out Michigan State University for the Big-10 football championship. My sacrifice was well rewarded. These concerts were very poorly promoted. I only found out about them through word-of-mouth. People should check out Astral Artists' website. The schedule in the program looks very inviting with a little something for everybody.
While I loved the music I did not love the acoustics. I have never loved the acoustics in that place. Performing there is like performing inside a sponge. Case in point the first concert, Beethoven's Op. 20 Septet in E-flat Major and Brahms' op. 11 Serenade in D major for nine players. Both wonderful works and spectacularly played by the group that Included Soovin Kim on violin, C.J. Chang on Viola, Peter Stumpf, cello; Joseph Conyers, double bass; Romie de Guise-Langlois, clarinet; and Jeffrey Lang, horn.
The players were arrayed across the stage with strings on the left and winds on the right. Which meant that each of the strings except for the bass was pointed away from the audience. Which also meant we couldn't hear them at all because most of the sound when produced went away never to be heard from again. I could hear Soovin kind of, the clarinet who played great, and the Bass, Joseph Conyers who also played great. The others I could hear only when they had a solo. Maybe it was where I was sitting which was on the main floor sort of stage left and just behind the reserved seating. But what I could hear I adored. I'm sure I've heard it somewhere but this was heard was wonderful.
After intermission the same group came out plus a flute player, Astral Artist Julietta Curenton and another clarinetist, Astral Artist Romie de Guise-Langlois, and an extra clarinet. The introductory remark said that some think the Beethoven provided the model for the Brahms. We know Brahms felt continually intimidated by the fact that Beethoven preceded him. I don't know about that. There are differences in key and in instrumentation, but each has six movements and includes winds and strings. But what is not far away Beethoven's pastoral symphony #6. The way Brahms used the flute and the clarinets come right out of it. Of course Brahms lend his own special style to it.
But they sat in reverse order. Now the strings were pointed at us and the winds toward the back. The strings were much louder now and you could hear all that lower string sound which, as a violist I love. I have to say I was knocked out by Jeffrey Lang whose horn playing was simply amazing.
Not so good. It was interesting to hear Brahms's Handel Variations, long one of my favorite pieces. It's a set of variations based on a Handel theme, and the pianist led off with Handel's 1st piano suite which includes the them and his own set of variations which are every bit as good as Brahms's. Before the intermission, Susan Babini played Brahms's Op. 38 sonata, and after the intermission she and her accompanist came back with Jennifer Stuff viola, whose sound was lucious, and Korginian Altenberger, violin, who I could hardly hear, to play Brahms's Opus 60 Piano Quartet in C minor. This quartet is one of three he wrote, Op. 51 #1 and #2, and this one, Op. 60.
They are great works this one of which, unfortunately was not done well by. At times they sounded great, but at times their ensemble almost broke down and a couple of time I am sure I saw Susan Babini counting for her partners. Now I know the only time you count out loud in a chamber group is to keep everyone together--not a good sign. Ms. Babini sounded great throughout. I could not say the same for the pianist. He had a penchant for wrong notes and at times clumpy playing and sometimes he missed things altogether. He got a good applause as for me I can't enjoy a concert if I'm always wondering when the performer is going to mess up next. A wrong note here or there, no problem, but . . .
Now for the gem of the evening: Brahms's String Sextet #2 Op. 36 and Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, a showy sextet, Op. 70. Astral Artists Kristen Lee and Ben Beilman violins joined Ida Kafavian, Steve Tenenbom, and the Peters Stumpf and Wiley. These people absolutely nailed these pieces and at such tempos. These are not fluffy works, and these guys made it sound easy. What a treat. I'd love to say you'll never hear playing like that again, but wonderful fact of musical life here in Philly is that you probably will. Kristen Lee, who played first on the Tchaikovasky, was the star of the piece. The only problem I had was the acoustics. The fast notes, and there were plenty of them, just didn't sound.
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