Astral Artists and Network for New Music

Saxophones and butterflies

The Astral Artists concert series is designed to show off the young musicians who survive Astral’s selection process. Astral’s latest program fulfilled that aim with four pieces that were so irresistibly attractive they produced one of the most satisfying concerts I’ve attended.

Crimson Rose (Atrophaneura hector), a type of red swallowtail butterfly, in Hyderabad, India. (Photo by J.M. Garg via Creative Commons/Wikipedia)

The two newish pieces on the program featured saxophonist Jonathan Wintringham. Cantilene et Danse by Algerian composer Marc Eychenne emphasizes the hornlike qualities of the saxophone, starting with a long call. Eychenne’s writing for the saxophone evokes the same kind of colors and emotions as horn, but it’s more flexible and singing. The Danse section is all bustle, with a bouncing, driving violin part and some fun stuff for the pianist.

In Takashi Yoshimatsu’s Dream Colored Mobile, the saxophone sounds more like a bassoon that’s been granted the power to reach notes that lie far above the bassoon’s range. Wintringham’s melodious, poetic solo rose from a subdued, dreamy background created by harp and string quartet.

Astral followed these two winners with two of the best loved works in the repertoire: Debussy’s poetic Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp and César Franck’s melodious, deeply emotional contribution to the literature for piano and string quartet.

Built-in virtuosity

The Network for New Music concert the following day presented an interesting contrast. Network concerts are supposed to showcase the music, not the performers, but one of the chief attractions of the afternoon was the displays of virtuosity five European composers had built into their work. Krzysztof Penderecki’s Cadenza, for example, probably wouldn’t sound very exciting if you listened to a recording and couldn’t see a violinist like Hirono Oka working through challenges such as the slow, precisely controlled strokes in one section.

In Salvatore Sciarrino’s Canzona di Ringraziamento, the challenges for guest flutist Christopher Schelb included “decoupling” the hands: one hand plays one thing while the other plays another. Keyboard players do that all the time but it’s not a trick flutists normally develop. Schelb also observed, in his notes on the piece, that the Canzona “constantly hovers near inaudibility” if you take the composer’s markings literally.

What’s the story?

None of the works on the Astral program needed any serious explanation, but most of the Network pieces required listeners who took the time to read the program notes. The odd sounds Christopher Schelb drew from his flute when he played Brian Ferneyhough’s Cassandra’s Dream Song only made sense if you knew they represented things like the struggles of someone who’s trying to speak. Once you understood the story line, you could hear the piece as a dramatic reading delivered with sounds rather than words.

The other two pieces were relatively straightforward. Kaija Saariaho’s Sept Papillons for solo cello endows seven miniatures with the color and movement of the butterflies referred to in the title. Wolfgang Rihm’s Über de Linie for alto flute, violin, and cello doesn’t present the listener with any special difficulties, even though the musicians have to synchronize three rhythmically different lines.

Song of Remembrance

My personal favorite of the six items on the program was a premiere by Temple composer Richard Brodhead. Cantus Memoriae (Song of Remembrance) is a solo for alto flute that the network’s regular flutist, Edward Schultz, played in memory of the late Philadelphia philanthropist Daniel W. Dietrich II. It reminded me of a Highland bagpipe lament but it was deeper and gentler, befitting a tribute to someone the composer praises for his “contemplation, commitment, humility,” and ”integrity.”

Of the four pieces on this program that required a flute, two called for the alto flute, an instrument that has some of the same range and color as the saxophone. Adolphe Sax’s invention came along too late to make it into the standard symphony orchestra, but it’s becoming more common in chamber music. Composers clearly feel the need for an instrument like it.


Author’s note: Dan Rottenberg has said BSR reviewers should go beyond reviewing and discuss the thoughts performances arouse. Any mention of butterflies reminds me of a Science News item I read a couple of years ago. Male butterflies compete by staging flying contests. They play follow-the-leader, with the lead butterfly engaging in risky maneuvers like flying close to the grass in the hope his rival will give up or hit a stalk. I find that charming. Curse you, Red Swallowtail!

Here’s a not-too technical article about these “non-contact aerial contests.”

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