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Curtis Institute performs slimmed down 'Babar'

Reduced from orchestra, but still big of heart

The main exchange of information at Curtis' first family concert of the year was over the subject of Babar, whose tough-luck-to-triumph story Poulenc wrapped into an often counterintuitive score of dance, starry tenderness, and big-city adventure. The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant is usually heard for orchestra, and here, in a beautiful arrangement for six instruments by Darin Kelly, it emerged with its colorful joy intact.

But first, these Curtis students had to face curious children, generally in the 5-to-8-year-old range, by demonstrating their instruments and taking questions. It's one thing to explain how a bassoon can reach notes lower than ones in its factory-given range (with a paper-cone extension stuffed into the bell), but it's quite another to hear a voice in the audience pipe up with the thought that the result sounds like a certain bodily function. Bassoonist Emeline Chong took the news well.

Other performers seemed less prepared to engage with the young audience at a meaningful level. Ultimately, though, children are sold or not sold on music based on, yes, the music, and this is one of Poulenc's small masterpieces. Visuals appeared in real time. Zachariah OHora drew live to the story, his big, blocky illustrations projected onto a screen. And the part of the narrator went to Charlotte Blake Alston, whose range – the pitch of her voice, her command of pacing, and dynamics – mirrored the music in magical ways. Curtis conducting fellow Carlos Ágreda led the ensemble.

Kelly, a Philadelphia trumpeter and arranger, preserved some of the original instrumental roles and reinvented others. A tuba part was handled rather thrillingly by the bassoon; a horn solo was perfectly velvety as reassigned to pianist Micah McLaurin. Kelly's fine ear was directed by an abiding feel for the emotional intent, and the sweetness, warmth, and wonder came through undiminished. When Babar rode on his mother's back or bade farewell to the old lady, words were required by no one -- man, beast, or child.

Additional performances: The Curtis Institute of Music performs The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant at the Philadelphia Museum of Art at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Dec. 4. That day is pay-what-you-wish Sunday at the museum, and the concert, in the Van Pelt Auditorium, is free.