Astral Artists: Triumph At PIFA

If the crepes, mimes and erection of a presumably expensive and possibly ephemeral 81-foot homage to the Eiffel Tower gnawed at the idea that a serious artistic thread could be seen or heard in the Kimmel Center’s Francophilia festival, reassurance could be found Saturday morning at the Perelman - in a children’s concert.

For the last performance of its season, Astral Artists took on the French theme – and some Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts funding – to produce three works. The big ambition, certainly, was in the premiere of Who Stole the Mona Lisa?, a specially commissioned 20-minute animated film by Micah Chambers-Goldberg, inspired (very loosely) by the theft of the painting from the Louvre a century ago in which Picasso and Apollinaire were briefly and wrongly implicated.

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 dish cloth. 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 a story, to be sure, but the instrumental sextet – especially violinist Kristen 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.

- Peter Dobrin