S&H Concert Review

Happy (if somewhat anxious) 100th Birthday, Philadelphia Orchestra! (RM-B)

A warm welcome to Prof. Mitchell-Boyask, a new contributor from Philadelphia. Comments and responses from readers (via len@musicweb-international.com) would be welcomed, as always by Seen&Heard and Music on the Web - see About Seen&Heard and my November 2000 Editorial. PGW

The Philadelphia Orchestra has prepared to move into its second century with a somewhat strange mixture of exuberant confidence and nagging doubts. The latest instalment in its centennial celebrations comes this week with a gala concert, featuring solo artists with strong connections to the Philadelphians and their Music Director Wolfgang Sawallisch: Andrew Watts, Thomas Hampson and Sarah Chang. This birthday occurs as Maestro Sawallisch continues to raise the Orchestra's level of playing, while charting new ground for himself in repertoire and emotional intensity. The Philadelphia Orchestra has not sounded better, or more like itself, in the thirteen years since I moved here. The nagging doubts enter when one wonders what would happen if the aged Sawallisch's health would fail, given the endless search for a new director, complicated by management failures and, at times, an almost captious fussiness on the part of musicians over who would become their seventh music director.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has observed its centennial with several different projects. There have been the customary tours, including the usual European jaunt (though this one turned into a bit of a coming out party for the rebuilt Philadelphians) and, this month, an old-fashioned 'whistle stop' excursion by train down the East Coast of the US. Another endeavor featured commissions from prominent contemporary composers such as Rautavaara, and a more novel idea of featuring new music; a contest that culminated in a concert this fall in which the audience and orchestra voted for the winner.

The first leg of the celebration, the 1999-2000 season, completely eliminated music written before 1900 from its concerts, much to the dismay of the traditionalists who have been holding the Orchestra back for years. The goal was not to survey all twentieth century music, but those pieces that have played an important role in the Orchestra's history; in other words, no Stockhausen and little Vaughan Williams, but a healthy diet ranging from Bartok to Varese to Shostakovich, with an occasional Rachmaninoff snack.

Outraged over the temporary absence of Tchaikovsky and Brahms, the elderly suburbanites voted with their seats, some canceling subscriptions and others merely turning in their tickets until the madness was over. The result, once word got around, was an audience that came not out of habit but from interest. By February the Orchestra was playing to full houses again, not least thanks to the buzz generated by a white-hot reading of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder led by Simon Rattle. Coughing plummeted and attention was audibly more intense. The Orchestra, reveling in its new cohesiveness after an infusion of new blood (more on that below), played magnificently every week. Conductors gunning to succeed Sawallisch entered the Academy of Music in their best form. It was, by most accounts, the most satisfying season in years.

Unfortunately, management, ears scorched by irate phone calls complaining about such radicals as Stravinsky, has pulled back this year to offer even more conservative programming than usual; the first two weeks of the season featured, for example, the main Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto - horses don't get more warlike than this! Thus, supporters of more adventurous music-making, having paid their hard-earned cash last year, took their turn at umbrage; audiences are noticeably smaller than last spring.

One hopes this a temporary regression before the new hall opens; at some point the old audience will, literally, die and there has to be a sustained effort at getting more people to listen to more varied music. The audience for music beyond Brahms IS there and just needs a more sustained commitment from management; individual ticket sales, for an example, hit an all time high during the twentieth-century experiment. Now there have been comments made about the need to have the next director present a 'Philadelphia friendly' repertoire; such comments make me cringe.

This, of course, brings us to the search for the new director. By the time you read this report, some decision might have been reached, but that is highly unlikely, as there is currently an abundance neither of candidates nor of the kind of stomach required to take a risk on a younger director. As is well known, Simon Rattle was regarded as a savior here, but it is not so well known just how close Philadelphia came. Judging from his public behavior and private comments, I have little doubt that, had Claudio Abbado not unexpectedly retired in Berlin, Rattle would have agreed this year to succeed Sawallisch. The chemistry between Rattle and this group really is remarkable, and he clearly enjoys having amenities such as the Curtis Institute of Music a stone's throw from Philadelphia Orchestra. Philadelphia still wins the consolation prize of having the director of the Berlin Philharmonic a a regular guest, a feat no American orchestra has ever achieved previously, but Rattle will cast a long shadow over the next director. His refusal to sign his Berlin contract over budgetary squabbles has moreover prompted the odd rumor, surely born more out of hopeful desperation than any reality, that Rattle might change his mind.

Subsequent to the Berlin announcement, the search has floundered, and just this week Sawallisch, who has started advising the search committee, is quoted as saying "there is no special name." Big names such as Chailly have appeared and disappeared from short lists with no explanation. Solid conductors such as Andrew Davis lack the star power, or so we are told. Christian Thielemann burned bridges with his arrogance, however talented he might be, and the remarks attributed to him in Berlin recently make it likely he will not be winning any positions in America any time soon. James Levine hovers in the distance, tantalizingly, smiling mysteriously like the Sphinx; Levine's great achievement in many respects seems to have been to neutralize the xenophilia that plagues so many American groups. When the likes of Christoph Eschenbach are pushed for big American posts and James Conlon has problems getting guest engagements in his native land, it is clear that decisions are not being made on purely musical criteria.

For a while it appeared that 42 year-old David Robertson, a real comer, would get serious consideration and become the first American since Bernstein to lead one of the old 'Big Five' (apologies to Michael Tilson Thomas and the SFSO), but he now seems to have received the official stamp of 'not ready', a label also applied to the able Ingo Metzmacher (who made, I thought, the best impression of ANY guest last year) and to Roberto Abbado. Abbado likely slid into the 'not acceptable' category on the basis of a wildly erratic performance last month that left musicians visibly frowning, though this week reports surfaced that he still has a core of fans among the rank-and-file players.

The hyperkinetic, affable and extremely intelligent Robertson might be worth the gamble, not least because of his articulate advocacy of new music, but, as Rattle himself observed, 'this is not a young man's orchestra'. The players are accustomed to having an aged maestro at the top of his game, and there now is a strong emotional bond among the musicians and their leader as they all worked through the grief over the death of Sawallisch's wife two years ago. They have told management they do not want a younger director. In his late seventies, Sawallisch is remarkably energetic still, and hopes to lead eight to ten weeks of concerts each year after he steps down, a remarkable total for a laureate, but one fears for a sudden downturn in his health. Clearly, if Levine is unavailable, something is going to have to give.

What makes the impasse particularly frustrating is that Sawallisch has rebuilt this group into an ensemble with few peers. The Philadelphia Sound, suppressed during the Muti regime, is back, though many current players call it 'The Sawallisch Sound'. This approach, which one might call Philadelphia 4.0, is definitely not the old Philadelphia Sound, which made the Orchestra unsuited to repertoire written before Brahms. Plush in the mold of Ormandy, but with a more distinct presence and edge, this sound relies more on the virtuosity and training of its players and the Orchestra's tradition than on the free bowing Stokowski encouraged, or the part-doubling in the strings that Ormandy used to increase their lushness.

Sawallisch found in the first few years of his directorship the need to do some house-cleaning because Muti had been reluctant to make some hard personnel decisions, and the process was a bit ugly, but he has now replaced almost a third of the players. He has chosen with impeccable taste; it is extremely difficult to fault his judgment with any of the more prominent hires. The brass section was a major weakness under Muti, yet now it operates in the same league as the strings, who in turn have been reinvigorated by new concertmaster David Kim, a former soloist who takes his leadership very seriously. The strings remain the group's glory, yet the ensemble is much more balanced across sections now. This might be the best version of the Philadelphia Orchestra yet. It is thus a shame that so few people get to hear it. Whoever leads the musicians next will owe his predecessor an enormous debt.

The resurgence of the Orchestra's sound also occurs as it prepares to move into a new hall whose acoustics have been designed by Artec, the firm responsible for, among the others, the venues for the CBSO, the Dallas Symphony and, most recently, the Lahti Symphony. The venerable Academy of Music, the Orchestra's home for its entire history, is wonderful as an opera house, but its dry acoustics and proscenium arch (keeping the musicians in a different room than the audience) rarely allow Philadelphians to hear the sound the musicians are actually producing. So proud is Sawallisch of his orchestra that he is trying to invite many of the world's great orchestras to visit the new hall, confident the Philadelphia Orchestra will not suffer in comparison. It is gratifying to know that Sawallisch will, late in 2001, realize the dream of Leopold Stokowski for the Philadelphia Orchestra to play in a concert hall worthy of it. Whether, in 2010, they will be led by a conductor who can maintain Sawallisch's standards and bring musicians and audience to appreciate a more diverse repertoire, is a question only the orchestra management and search. committee can answer. Since management itself is evolving, with the British Simon Woods reportedly gaining influence beyond his post as Artistic Administrator, we have reason to hope some solution might be at hand.

Robin Mitchell-Boyask

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