The 2016 Astral National Auditions Winners Concert

Astral winners reach for the stars

In its 25-year history of presenting emerging young musicians to the general public, Astral has shown a remarkable ability to find performers with confident, individualistic command of technique and interpretation. As if to prove that point, Astral premiered a new concept in their concert structure: a showcase of the seven winners of the 2016 national auditions for the new Astral season.

Timothy Chooi goes for baroque. (Photo by Ryan Brandenberg)

Joy and drama

These kinds of events carry some risks, which were not entirely avoided here. A single performer or group can shape a program over the course of a concert, revealing a dramatic flow and a range of personality. In a showcase format, there are, instead, a series of flashes, and even individual movements of music ripped from the context of the larger piece.

On balance, though, the sheer youthful joy and inspiring seriousness of these players carried the evening. The opening performance set the stage, with an exquisitely rendered Rhapsodie pour la harpe, music by Marcel Grandjany, presented by Emily Levin. A well-played harp is naturally delicate and tonally alluring, certainly the case with Levin’s presentation, but she enhanced these qualities with a measured sense of pacing that gave the music a palpably theatrical feeling.

Pianists have always been a mainstay of the Astral stable, and we heard from three distinct voices. Natalia Kazaryan plucked the “Scarbo” section from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit and gave the notoriously difficult music a thoughtful, burnished glow, as opposed to the usually brilliantly shaped manner in which it is presented.

Zhenni Li, who gave us the opening of the Schumann Piano Sonata No. 1. Li found the quirky harmonic sensibility and strange beauty of Schumann with natural ease, with especially incisive drawing out of inner voices.

Chopin’s glorious Ballade No. 3 is a contrast of quiet poetry and blazing grandeur. Congcong Chai’s interpretation leaned towards the poetic side, to the detriment of Chopin’s vision. Yet Chai’s warm and introspective manner point to an interesting career.

The kids are all right

Then there were the violinists, starting with Timothy Chooi, who presented the Chaconne of the Italian baroque composer Tomaso Antonio Vitali with gorgeous tone, agility and great feeling. Katie Hyun played the Heifetz arrangement of various great tunes from Porgy and Bess. She sounded inspired by the legendarily silvery tone of Heifetz, but this jazz influenced music could have benefited from a bit more soul and swing; those elements were instead supplied by Hugh Sung, who accompanied her from the piano.

The program concluded with yet more fragments of a masterpiece, in this case, the last two movements of the Beethoven Razumovsky String Quartet. Although the first two movements were missed, the exhilarating Rolston String Quartet more than compensated. What great jubilance and exuberance these fresh-faced players radiated, and what a thrilling cohesion of phrasing and tone. They added an exclamation point to this showcase, which validated the great value of Astral to Philadelphia’s music community, and indeed, given the globetrotting careers of so many Astral alums, to the music loving public everywhere.

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