Winners of Philadelphia classical music competition perform at the Kimmel

Violinist Timothy Chooi performs at the Astral music festival. (Ryan Brandenberg/Astral Artists)

Violinist Timothy Chooi performs at the Astral music festival. (Ryan Brandenberg/Astral Artists)

Earlier this week, Astral Artists – an organization supporting young, emerging classical musicians – held a concert at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia to debut its new roster of performers.

Every year, Astral Artists selects musicians through a competitive audition process. This year, for the first time, it presented the new crop publicly. Seven artists — who may become leaders of the next generation of classical musicians — performed a gala concert at the Kimmel’s Perelman Theater.

“Philadelphia hasn’t had had a major classical music competition of national reputation for the public to enjoy since the Pavarotti voice competition in the 1980s and 90s,” said Astral Artist executive director Julia Rubio. “We hope that by opening up the auditions we will enrich our cultural community, and add dimension and perspective to the life of a classical musician.”

One of those musicians is Natalia Kazaryan, 28, a pianist who grew up in the Republic of Georgia just as that country was separating from what was then the U.S.S.R.

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“Music has always been there for me, growing up in the post-Soviet nightmare,” said Kazaryan, who went on to study at Julliard and is now pursuing a doctorate at the University of Michigan. “There really wasn’t much else available. It was really something that gave me hope and kept me going. I know how important music is to young people, especially. I love performing for people. I love telling stories through music.”

The story she chose to tell at the Astral Artist concert on Wednesday was literally a nightmare. Maurice Ravel’s “Gaspard de la nuit” (a.k.a. “Scarbo”) — one of the most challenging piano solo pieces in the standard repertoire — describes a demon.

“Scarbo is a night goblin. He creeps in your room as you try to go to sleep,” explained Kazaryan. “He terrifies you throughout the night. He climbs the walls, scratches the walls, and hangs on the chandelier. As a pianist you are supposed to communicate that through the very elaborate passageworks and scary things happening in the music. Very difficult, virtuosic things.”

Kazaryan auditioned for Astral Artists because she wanted the organization to put her in a variety of formats — from solo to small ensemble to chamber orchestra — in front of a variety of audiences.

“With Astral I’m will be able to perform on a big stage,” said Kazaryan. “I’m also able to perform for young students, for retired communities. I just love being part of that effort to bring music to a wide range of communities.”

Another set of artists new to Astral is the Rolston String Quartet, whose members hail from parts of Canada but are now in residence at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music in Houston, Texas. When they left Toronto for Texas two years ago, they decided to invest all of their collective career aspirations into this one quartet.

“We are not pursuing any other engagements or opportunities beyond the quartet,” said cellist Jonathan Lo. “This is something that changed in Houston when we started the residency here.”

The Rolston Quartet was founded 3 ½ years ago, and is already doing well for itself, winning the Banff International String Quartet Competition, landing the Shepherd residency, and now joining Astral Artists.

They want to steer their artistic success into career success. Lo is looking to Astral to advise the quartet on navigating the tricky waters of the classical music business, starting with allowing Astral to handle all their booking arrangements and contract negotiations for the next few years.

“That’s a tremendous load off our shoulders, for them to help facilitate communication between presenters,” said Lo. “Those details are incredibly helpful.”

Even the Quartet’s selection for the gala concert, the last two movements of Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” quartet, was carefully considered for the audience. It’s relatively short to befit an omnibus program, it’s upbeat to befit a celebratory gala, and the members like it: it’s a piece they know well and play often.

Astral Artists will book its artists — including the Rolston Quartet — into gigs around the world, but all the concerts Astral presents, itself, are in the Philadelphia region.

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