'The only reason Barber gets away with elementary musical methods is that his heart is pure," Virgil Thomson wrote after the 1941 New York premiere of Samuel Barber's widely adored Violin Concerto.
Of pure hearts there could be no doubt in the case of three composers bringing relatively new works to the Kimmel's Perelman Theater on Thursday night. The concert - a joint effort by Symphony in C, Astral Artists, and lead funder Presser Foundation - was billed as "Beyond Barber." But next to Barber's beloved concerto, these new pieces made it clear that "beyond" might still be a bridge too far.
All three works were beautifully crafted. Sincerity was never in doubt, and neither was substance. It was, however, striking to hear Michael Djupstrom leaning so sweetly on a movie-score vernacular in the premiere of 2013's Suite from The Wedding. Nothing disparaging is meant by the movie-music classification, only a reference to the directness of the musical language - the beating-heart opening, an English horn solo of sincerity and warmth, a chase, a propensity for plush. Djupstrom, a Curtis Institute faculty member, shifts the character of the music with great skill. More important, though, even at the extreme end of the accessibility scale, he's a composer who sounds like no one else. In other words, pure of heart.
At another point in the scale was Melinda Wagner's Extremity of Sky, a piano concerto whose realization could not have been in better hands than those of the stupendously athletic pianist Henry Kramer, exacting conductor Stilian Kirov, and this expert professional training orchestra. Wagner's 2006 work is busy, dense, and dissonant - and wonderfully legible to anyone sensitive to the ebb and flow of traditional music: repeated figures, fixations on certain pitches, and an inventive development of ideas. Emotionally, its four movements shadowed a symphony, with a second movement whose spare, nocturnal sounds made time stand still.
Efraín Amaya's Wuaraira Repano for clarinet and chamber orchestra had great joy and a terrific rhythmic edge exploited beautifully by clarinetist Benito Meza. Amaya, a Venezuelan and former Philadelphian, set out to convey his happiest times in life, an intention that manifested itself with a carefree bounce.
If the ink on the Barber Violin Concerto was a good deal drier than that of the program's other works, it offered here a soloist of youth. Nikki Chooi, a Curtis and Juilliard School graduate on Astral's current roster, might still be coming to terms with the deepest reaches of this piece's uniquely tender repose. But with his quicksilver technique and throaty tone, Chooi need not have been heard through the young-artist lens. He is, at 27, the author of some persuasive views all his own.