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.