Presenting young artists in exotic classical formats

Flutist Julietta Curenton will give her solo debut in one of three concerts Saturday in Astral's Spiritual Voyages Festival.
Flutist Julietta Curenton will give her solo debut in one of three concerts Saturday in Astral's Spiritual Voyages Festival. (JOANNA WILLIAMS)
Posted: February 16, 2012

Gospel choirs, Balinese gamelan ensembles, and Indonesian dance troupes aren't typical guests at Astral Artists concerts. Nor is Philadelphia Theatre Company lighting designer Terry Smith, or poet Nguyen Quyen. At least the composers to be represented Saturday in Astral's Spiritual Voyages Festival are recognizable, from Heitor Villa-Lobos to Astor Piazzolla.

The one-day festival's three programs - at 1, 4, and 8 p.m. at Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square - are putting much of Astral's young-artist roster, not to mention its staff, in foreign territory. How it goes down with Philadelphia audiences - historically conservative, if surprisingly progressive of late - is "a big question mark," said Vera Wilson, Astral Artists founder. "It's a bit of a risk, but that's what we do."

The two-year project, supported by the Knight Foundation and Philadelphia Music Project, was the brainchild of Julian Rodescu, Astral's artistic director. Before his sudden death at 58 in October, Rodescu already had worked to bring Astral's young artists out of concert halls and into clubs, and welcomed into the organization soloists who didn't play the usual classical-music instruments.

The Spiritual Voyages Festival was his boldest endeavor yet. The impetus was the flutist Julietta Curenton, who wanted to play more African American repertoire. And indeed, her solo recital debut - the second of Saturday's three concerts - has music by William Grant Still among such modern European works as Henri Dutilleux's Sonatine.

The first and third programs will stray furthest from traditional classical concerts. The 1 p.m. performance mixes the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas Chancel Choir, composer/pianist Evelyn Simpson-Curenton (longtime Philadelphia cultural leader and the flutist's mother), Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra founder Jeri Lynn Johnson, poems by Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes, as well as works by African American composers such as George Walker and Alvin Singleton.

The third concert, titled "From the Andes to the Yangtze," offers everything from the Gamelan Semara Santi of Swarthmore College, to the Indonesian Cultural Club Dance Troupe and pieces by Astor Piazzolla, Gabriela Lena Frank, and that Latin American crowd-pleaser, Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 for soprano and cellists, by Villa-Lobos.

"One of Julian's great strengths was being able to bring people together," said his widow, Barbara Govatos, a Philadelphia Orchestra violinist, who will play in the concert. "We always considered our immediate and extended family to be a sort of a United Nations."

Rodescu also knew that inspiring audiences to make repeat visits to concerts involved something more than programming Brahms (which he also did in Astral's now three-year-old Brahms Festival). He used animated visuals in Who Stole the Mona Lisa, Astral's contribution to the 2011 Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts and, at Govatos' Delaware Chamber Music Festival last year, observed how effectively gamelan and dancers set the scene for ethnic-influenced music.

"Julian's synapses were firing all at once about how he could incorporate them as well into his Spiritual Journey," Govatos said in an e-mail.

Most of the 2012 festival was in place - as were a number of new-music commissions for next year's version - when Rodescu died Oct. 1. Assembling the pieces into a logical through-line fell to Astral's then-new executive director Don Marrazzo, whose background included operatic performance and behind-the-scenes work at the Glimmerglass Opera.

"When I looked at this musical rundown, I thought there has to be more of a musical storytelling aspect to it, something more than a traditional concert format ... a feeling and atmosphere for what these cultures are about," he said. "We want to get a dramatic, theatrical take on it ... rather than always stopping for applause."

To that end, Marrazzo is working with Philadelphia Theatre Company lighting designer Terry Smith to create a more neutral, anything-can-happen feeling in the church space, and a place where dance, poetry, and music can unfold with some sense of flow.

"I had a few conversations with Julian about it," he says. "I think we're on the same page."


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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