by Paul E. Robinson
|Academy of Music (Philadelphia, PA)|
Ippolitov-Ivanov: Caucasian Sketches
Wagner: Tannhäuser: Overture
Bach arr. Stokowski: Toccata and Fugue
in D minor BWV 565
Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker Suite Op. 71a
Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Bernstein: West Side Story: Symphonic
Stravinsky: Firebird Suite (1919)
Wagner: Die Walküre: The Ride of the
June 23, 2012
Leopold Stokowski (photo: right) conducted his first concerts as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra almost one hundred years ago (1912). In commemoration of this anniversary, the orchestra presented a 4-concert festival led by music director-designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin at the Academy of Music where Stokowski and his orchestra made
music for decades.
Did the currently financially troubled
Philadelphia Orchestra rise to the occasion? And could the young music
director-in-waiting bear comparison with a conducting legend? The answer in
both cases is emphatically “Yes.”
I attended the two concerts
above and my overall impression was that Yannick Nézet-Séguin is already well
into a honeymoon with both the orchestra and the audience. Frankly,
Philadelphia has never seen a leader like Yannick; given the problems facing
the orchestra, he may well prove a good part of the solution.
Maestro's Winning Ways a Coup for Philly
As Montrealers have
known for years, Yannick Nézet-Séguin is a superb musician. A huge
natural talent, he has worked diligently to master a vast repertoire. He also
has an easy manner with audiences. Predecessors like Dutoit, Eschenbach,
Sawallisch, Muti and Ormandy rarely spoke to the audience and when they did,
often erred on the side of formality. Stokowski certainly addressed his
audiences, albeit in a pompous manner that did little to make classical music
more accessible to them.
The two concerts I attended
started with introductory comments by both Yannick (photo: left) and an actor portraying
Stokowski, in a sequence put together by stage director James Alexander. The
two conductors appeared on film in first tier boxes on opposite sides of the
stage, seemingly in conversation. At the conclusion of this short dialogue
Stokowski passed the baton to Yannick, in a bit of movie magic that showed the
baton being thrown by Stokowski, tumbling across the big screen covering the
stage opening and finally being caught by Yannick. The audience loved this
charming “coup de théâtre.”
At the end of the “Audience
Choice” program, Yannick again demonstrated how charming he could be with an
audience, asking them to choose an encore. It would be either Brahms Hungarian
Dance No. 5 or Strauss’ Radetzky March. The audience was asked to indicate its
choice by applause. The winner would be decided on the basis of the height of
the green lights on the applause meter registering sound on the columns beside
Philadelphia Orchestra Alive and Well!
Yannick led the audience
through the process with all the energy and expertise of a circus ringmaster. The
audience choice? The Radetzky March, that perennial encore for the Vienna
Philharmonic New Year’s Concert.
Ultimately, Yannick will
succeed or fail in Philadelphia on the basis of what he does with the music,
and all indications are positive. While the programs for this Stokowski
Celebration were essentially chosen by Stokowski, not by Yannick, he conducted
every piece with total commitment and authority.
The first concert I attended
was a re-creation of Stokowski’s first concert as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The
only change – perhaps because the program was thought to be too long – was the
omission of Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3 Overture which opened the 1912 concert.
Instead, this 2012 tribute began with Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in a glorious
The Baton Has Passed!
Yannick had just conducted all
four Brahms symphonies in Montreal, and on this occasion, led a performance
that was powerful, exciting, beautiful and entirely without eccentricity.
Stokowski, a great interpreter of this music – he recorded it several times with the Philadelphia Orchestra – made many changes in the score, most notably in the big brass chorale in the last movement, where he added more brass instruments and changed the voicings of the chords to make the chorale bigger and grander. Yannick, on the other hand, played it “as written” and it was just fine.
Academy of Music a Treasure Worth Preserving...
In the Brahms performance and elsewhere in the two concerts I attended, I was struck by the sonority and power
of the basses and cellos. While the Academy of Music has a basically dry
acoustic, the bass response is extraordinary. I understand that some
renovations were done fairly recently and the result may have been favourable
to bass instruments. Make no mistake: in spite of all the financial turmoil
swirling around it, this orchestra remains one of the finest in the world. From
concertmaster David Kim on down the principal players are outstanding and the
unanimity of ensemble is remarkable. The strings play with an intensity and
depth of sound that rivals the Berlin Philharmonic.
The “Audience Choice” program
was a very mixed bag as programming. The concept, which was Stokowski’s,
entailed giving the audience a list of pieces and asking for their preferences.
This time around the audience was given a list that was in part similar to what
Stokowski’s might have been, with a few additions. The result was a program of mostly
symphonic pops pieces and too many big finishes for a balanced program. By the
time the orchestra got to the Ride of the Valkyries, it was clear that the
brass players were beginning to run out of steam.
This was definitely not the
kind of program that Yannick himself would have chosen, but he made the best of
it. He and the orchestra were especially impressive in the Stokowski
orchestration of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. This is a very effective
piece and a real showcase for a virtuoso string section. Yannick made the most
of all the improvisatory episodes and tempo changes, not to mention the
organ-like pedal notes in the brass.
In the Tchaikovsky and Dukas
pieces, Yannick and the orchestra provided the live soundtrack for the iconic
scenes from the film Fantasia. This meant that Yannick had to conduct the music
exactly the way Stokowski conducted it to make the music match the action on screen.
I understand that when this was done at the family concert earlier in the day,
Yannick had some difficulty putting it all together. In the evening concert,
however, it was nearly perfect.
...But the Kimmel Center Not Quite So!
Along with many other
listeners, I have been very disappointed with the Kimmel Center and Verizon
Hall in which the orchestra now presents nearly all its concerts. The acoustics
are overly bright and metallic and the sound lacks presence. The Kimmel is a
disaster as a people place. Dark and forbidding, it’s more like a funeral
parlor than an arts center. Attracting audiences to the place is going to
require lots of imagination and money. Improved acoustics in the performance
hall will not be enough; the lobby too will need a makeover.
The Academy of Music is no substitute
for a modern concert facility. It has rudimentary amenities, only fair
acoustics, and very uncomfortable seats. After its recent renovation, however,
it remains an impressive treasure from another age and it is an ideal place for
special series such as the Stokowski Celebration.
Apart from the great
Philadelphia Orchestra, Philadelphia has a good deal to offer arts-oriented
visitors, including a number of excellent galleries and museums, the latest
being the new home of the Barnes Foundation. The original Barnes Museum was
located in Meirion just outside Philadelphia and because of the small galleries
and the owner’s preferences, reservations to view the collection had to be made
far in advance. After much controversy, the major part of the collection was moved
to a new building near the grand Philadelphia Museum of Art in the arts
district on Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Albert Barnes, who died in
1951, left instructions that his paintings always be displayed according to his
wishes – in what he called “ensembles” according to colors and subject matter,
in small rooms. For better or worse, Barnes’ wishes have been carried out in
the new building. In my opinion, these “ensembles” makes no sense at all. Each
wall of each small room is jammed with dozens of paintings and other art
objects, making it difficult for an observer to give each one its due. In
addition, these small rooms are actually part of a large building, in which the
most spacious room has no paintings at all on the walls, but rather rows of
benches giving it the look and feel of a waiting room in a railway station. That
said, the collection is definitely worth viewing. Reservations, which are still
required, can be made at www.barnesfoundation.org.
If you’re looking for a place
to have dinner before a concert at the Academy of Music or Verizon Hall, there
are several fine restaurants nearby. The Greek restaurant Estia is right across Locust St. from the stage door of the Academy
and offers a full range of excellent dishes. Around the corner
on Broad St., the Bliss restaurant is
cosy and welcoming.
|Jumbo Lump Crab Cake (Bliss)|