Composer Kernis ends a fruitful residency with Astral Artists

Aaron Jay Kernis' two-year composer residency with Astral Artists came to an official end Sunday and appears to have had a significant impact on every possible party.

For the composer, now 51, Astral's series of concerts, rehearsals, and outreach programs represented a return to his native Philadelphia under lower-pressure circumstances, than, say, the 2001 opening of the Kimmel Center, for which he wrote the piece Color Wheel for the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Aaron Jay Kernis returned to his native Philadelphia for the two-year residency with Astral Artists.

The postgraduate Astral Artists musicians no doubt grew from having firsthand access to his celebrated musical mind that follows Leonard Bernstein's example of mixing high art and popular culture.

The audience - and Astral has a loyal one - had a more concentrated dose of Kernis' elusive talent whose outward manner changes in nearly every piece, culminating in Sunday's premiere of da l'Arte Della Danssar (from the Art of the Dance). It's typically atypical Kernis: He employed chunks of 15th-century Italian text about the social function and pageantry of dance, more descriptive than poetic.

Commissioned by Astral and written for soprano, flute, viola, harp and percussion, these four chunky songs have buoyant clarity that suggested a creatively healthy composer - in contrast to Color Wheel, whose good music was buried under way too many notes, suggesting how the weight of being a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer can be inhibiting and inspiring.

In the new work, each musician pulls a different kind of weight. Simultaneous activities managed to be both independent and interdependent. Excise any one line and you'd still have a viable piece.

Vocal contours were efficient and affecting, revealing intimacies with deliberate manner and spare harp accompaniment. Kernis' past orchestral works were heard when masses of color swept in with great effect. For all the music's 15th-century echoes, we're still looking back from the 21st.

The performers were terrific. Particularly fascinating was the contrast between soprano Disella Larusdottir in Kernis' 1991 Simple Songs (which live up to their title) and the more eventful Art of the Dance. This potentially glass-shattering voice in the earlier work was engaged on so many more levels in the later one as to funnel her vocal ammunition into a more subtle expression, especially in her rich lower range.

The Philadelphia Orchestra's Don Liuzzi was the master of atmospheric percussion, with articulate contributions from Astral musicians you'd happily hear as soloists (flutist Jasmine Choi, harpist Bridget Kibbey and violist Teng Li).

The program also rescued two hugely underestimated composers - Gustav Holst, whose Terzetto for Flute, Violin and Viola was full of invention and soul, and Ernst von Dohnanyi's Serenade for String Trio (Op. 10), showing what a distinctive voice he had when not composing for piano (his primary instrument). High-personality incidental solos were heard from violinist Benjamin Beilman.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at