But in a concert of a little more than an hour, great substance came in concentrated form. Astral's take on Martinu's La Revue de Cuisine didn't follow the plotline of the ballet, premiered in Paris in 1930 - a love story in which the marriage of a pot and lid is threatened by a stick and, possibly, a dishcloth. Astral used only four of the original movements (and three kitchen utensils), and added to the pantomime a thief, who steals the Mona Lisa.
A thin narrative on which to hang interest, to be sure, but the instrumental sextet - especially violinist Kristin Lee and bassoonist Natalya Rose Vrbsky - was operating on such a high level that the music carried the day.
Adults may feel children need this kind of antic visual stimulation to maintain interest, but an unadorned performance of Poulenc's The Story of Babar cast a spell of unquestionable power. Rather than the instrumental version, Astral presented it with pianist Alexandre Moutouzkine and, as narrator, Charlotte Blake Alston. Some of the Jean de Brunhoff plot points to changing philosophies in what we want children to hear - Babar's mother is killed, the king dies of mushroom poisoning - but Alston's pacing and nearly operatic vocal range granted humanity and comedy to the text. The score, tinged with Stravinsky and among Poulenc's most emotionally sophisticated, is a solid gem.
Moutouzkine treated it like Ravel, eliciting a fully orchestral palette from his keyboard, which connected nicely to his canny transcription of music from Stravinsky's The Firebird - the score to Who Stole the Mona Lisa? The Russian pianist, sitting beneath the large screen, had to track the animation closely to match his playing to the action - a feat that caused no apparent challenges. He is one of those pianists whose command is so natural and comfortable there seems to be no space between player and instrument.
And who knew Stravinsky's music would fit so snugly with a completely different story? There's a musical alarm in The Firebird Moutouzkine appropriated for the moment the theft of the Mona Lisa is discovered, and a balky inspector for whom Stravinsky could easily have been writing. A nice stroke of humor comes when Picasso is caught painting the Guernica - as graffiti.
The moving music of The Firebird's "Berceuse" is repurposed to give meaning to the scene in which the thief has second thoughts. Visited by an apparition of Leonardo, with bells tolling and luminous particles floating around her, the thief extends her hand to the painting to reveal her best motives and, in tandem, a universal truth dearly held by lovers of this repertoire: sometimes the art is so powerful you just can't get close enough.
Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-5611. He blogs at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/artswatch.