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S & H International Concerts Report

Report from Philadelphia: One Year, and Nine Months, by Robin Mitchell-Boyask

19 September 2002

On Monday, 9 September 2002, a line for tickets stretched across the lobby of Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, out the door and into the street, for the second time in a week. The causes of the two lines could not have been more different, the second being free tickets for a memorial concert for the victims of September 2001 and the first the opening day of non-subscription tickets for the entire coming season of arts programs in the venue that had opened last December, three months after the attacks. And yet, the two causes seem, in my mind at least, strangely intertwined, for the season starts one year after the atrocity and nine months after the Center opened, and how the arts and their audiences have responded to events of the past year and how the last year has affected the arts financially have never been far from anyone’s mind. Part of this equation on the local level has been the efforts, at times struggles, to get the acoustics of Verizon Hall right and in tune with the ensemble which makes primary use of the space, the Philadelphia Orchestra.

So let’s start with an update (delayed far too long by external circumstances) from my last report on the progressive adaptations of the Philadelphia Orchestra to its new home. To sum up: Verizon opened hastily in December -- too hastily because of construction delays -- and without any time for acoustical testing. With finishing work ongoing through the remainder of the season, the foundation of the Hall’s acoustics changed daily (literally). For the two months of the season, the doors all of the adjustable acoustical resonance chambers remained shut while the Orchestra adjusted to the basic acoustic of the Hall. I will now confess to a nagging worry about the flatness of the acoustical image of the orchestra and a sense that the sound was too distant. On the other hand, anything was better than the Academy of Music, and I had read and trusted the assurances that this was a work in progress, and that it might be over a year before the final sound would be achieved. Many members of the national press somehow managed not to read these statements, and, as late as the summer, articles from distant parts of the country would appear lamenting how awful the Philadelphians sounded in their new home and what a disaster Verizon had become. These articles tended to be based on visits during January and February. However, then Simon Rattle arrived for three weeks at the beginning of March and matters began to change. This gives me an excuse to linger a little on those three weeks, as they were the highlight of the year.

The three weeks were organized around the theme "Rattle’s Vienna," but perhaps should have been called "Rattle’s Viennese Philadelphia," as Rattle seemed at least focused on exploring the sound world of what has turned into his sole American commitment in a hall that one might speculate was built to attract him, as he was in the Viennese composers themselves. In the first week he created three different Philadelphia sounds: one for Strauss’ Frühlingstimmen wherein the strings had a buoyant airiness evocative of the Vienna Philharmonic; the second, for the orchestration of Schoenberg’s Quartet No. 2, a strangely dissatisfying performance in which he allowed the Philadelphia strings to be fully themselves, drenched in creamy Schlag; and last, for the Schubert Great C Major, he went for the Modified Period Plan he uses here (and elsewhere) for the Viennese Classics, a minimum of vibrato while still allowing a particular orchestra some resemblance to its own sound (though he dropped his previous habit of dividing the first violins). Rattle and the musicians seemed to have enormous fun; indeed, I often caught sight of players giggling at Rattle’s mugging. On the other hand, Rattle’s take missed the sense of aching longing and sadness in that extraordinary piece. For week two Rattle and H. K. Gruber brought Gruber’s Frankenstein !!, the highlight of which was his exploitation of the audience sitting behind of the stage by throwing various objects into it. Luckily, the silliness was redeemed by an utterly blistering Mahler 5th which Rattle has now brought to Berlin for his debut concert as director (to be released very soon by EMI).

Now, what Berlin will make of Rattle’s interpretation of the Bruckner 9th will be very interesting to see, for that was the bulk of the final program, and six months later, I am still trying to make up my mind about what I heard. To start, Rattle somehow managed to entice Pinchas Zukerman, not particularly known for the twentieth-century violin repertoire, to have a go at the Berg Concerto, and have a go is what he did. The tone had the purity one might expect, but he seemed disengaged and at times skimped on the exact demands Berg made of the solist. Rattle provided an extremely strong sense of the piece’s architecture and brought great beauty from the Orchestra. After intermission Rattle came out with the Bruckner and threw a large musical bomb into the hall. This was not the remote, Olympian Bruckner of a von Karajan. It was not the stereotypical gemütlich Bruckner (are we finally getting away from that?). This was raging, furious, terrified and terrifying Bruckner. The amount of anger Rattle’s face and body communicated was simply astonishing (I wondered afterwards, where did this anger originate? What was he thinking about? Arts funding in the UK?). He drove the players through the piece mercilessly, breathlessly -- LITERALLY breathlessly, for the traditional Brucknerian pauses simply were not there. Rattle moved from section to section at a breakneck pace, imploring the strings, especially, in the Adagio, for more and more sound. I am not sure how the players kept up with him and play as well as they did (this brass section bears no resemblance to the band Sawallisch inherited a decade ago) , but they certainly responded. The absence of Brucknerian breaths made Rattle’s decision to prolong the silence after the cataclysmic climax of the third movement all the more marked, but perhaps made it seem a bit too mannered. In the face of such death-haunted rage, it was hard not to think of the events of six months before. How this approach will go over with the Brucknerian traditionalists in Berlin, I do not know; I presume he will conduct the 9th there soon, as he seems to be using Philadelphia to prepare his larger Berlin projects.

But, to a Philadelphian eager to hear how the hall would develop, the acoustical adjustments made those weeks were a story in themselves. Since Rattle had worked with Russell Johnson in Birmingham, he was well suited to operate in Verizon at this point. Immediately, he put the orchestra on tiered risers, while before only a couple of small groups had been on isolated raised platforms. That helped with projection. Then, all of the chamber doors were opened, and the difference in reverberation during the first week from February was remarkable. During the third week of his run, the doors were all completely closed during the Berg, for a very tight focused sound, and then, during the same concert, we returned from intermission to find them all about two-thirds open, to provide the requisite reverberation for the Bruckner. I suspect that the extent of that manipulation was experimental, as I did not see mid-concert corrections of such magnitude attempted again. (And shortly thereafter Yuri Temirkanov found the doors closed when he led the Curtis Orchestra in Verizon.)

The bulk of the remaining season was set up to explore the hall’s acoustics, including a program that went from a wind band for a Mozart serenade to a string orchestra for Verklärte Nacht, and a noble, beautiful, but perhaps not ideally transcendent Verdi Requiem under Sawallisch. By the end, Johnson and Sawallisch seemed to be arriving at the right formula: the doors immediately around the orchestra stage are closed with those at the sides of the audience open about two-thirds, an arrangement I expect to find again as the new season begins this week. This produced a full sound, with a vivid orchestral presence, and sufficient bloom to allow the Philadelphia Orchestra to sound like the Philadelphia Orchestra in a very good hall. Whether they sound like the Philadelphia Orchestra in a great hall will certainly be known by the end of the season, a period marked by the presence of Christoph Eschenbach on five programs as conductor, leading five premieres, and another program as piano soloist under Sawallisch.

This returns me to the two days of lines. I am hesitant to use a hackneyed phrase like "a sleeping giant awakes," but that may be what the musical companies here and their audiences are experiencing right now. Philadelphia has always had a great orchestra, arguably the best chamber music scene in American outside of New York, a great conservatory in Curtis, an excellent chamber orchestra, a very good ballet, and an underdeveloped (for lack of space) opera company. But their performances were spread out across the city in often unsatisfactory venues, and their marketing left much to be desired. Few visiting groups would come due to the space and marketing problems. Then, all of a sudden, wonderful spaces open up, vagabonds have homes, visitors come, and the performances are packaged in a well-designed brochure. Combine these changes with a crowd that is not willing to pay exorbitant ticketing fees for phone and online sales, and you have long lines on the first day of single ticket sales for all performances this season, including the Philadelphia Orchestra. If high culture is in danger in Philadelphia, its habitants have a funny way of displaying it.

Not that all is well, for, all across the country, donors have closed their wallets since last September, and many orchestras are running deficits. Indeed, the Philadelphia Orchestra management publicly (and testily) blames its inability to raise money on these conditions (begging the question of their relative lack of success in such endeavors during the go-go 1990s), and thus is instituting extra fees for concerts it feels are "premium," a wildly subjective category that includes all weekend concerts by the current and incoming music directors and a handful of other programs. One wonders how artists feel who are not categorized as worthy of the "premium" label. On that level, and for the risk of increasing the stratification among the audience (which the Kimmel Center was partly designed to fight), this has struck some as penny wise and pound foolish; better fundraising should have been attempted first. Members of the audience who are not wealthy are also essentially be asked to chose between attending concerts and contributing to the Annual Fund, not a healthy choice for anyone. Once the aura of the newness of the venue has worn off, the burden will be on management to ensure its product is worth the extra money those weeks, not least because Philadelphians will now hear a procession of other orchestras without having to go to New York.

Thinking of New York, though for a different reason, enough people lined up before 10.a.m. Monday to exhaust all available tickets for the memorial concert in Verizon Hall, scheduled for the anniversary of 9/11, by 10:28. The concert, held yesterday during the hours of the collapse (I could not attend, unfortunately) was a joint effort among the Kimmel Center’s resident companies, who all seemed to agree that it was better to avoid the more overt, well-worn, musical texts of mourning, such as the Requiems of Mozart and Verdi. The Philadelphia Orchestra chose the finale of the Beethoven 9th for its theme of universal brotherhood, the Chamber of Orchestra of Philadelphia performed the Barber Adagio (a more genuine statement perhaps here then elsewhere as Barber was a native son), and other groups followed with dancing and African-American spirituals. It sounds as if it was nicely put together, but I am glad that I was not in attendance. The Barber works for me in such situations, but the presence of the Beethoven Choral, given the surreal atmosphere of the day, is a little too evocative of A Clockwork Orange for my tastes. But I cannot bring myself to criticize any aspect of the event as its participants were all trying to find some shred of meaning in the disaster. I wish some orchestra in or near New York would realize that only one piece of music is fully appropriate in response to the atrocity: the Finale of the Mahler 10th, which starts with music inspired by a funeral procession for a New York fireman that Mahler witnessed when he lived there and whose dissonant raging climax seems the only possible response to such destruction.

I have used the term "atrocity" to describe what the media tends to call "tragedy," a term I reject here. In the world of Greek tragic drama, where I live in my day job, tragic suffering has some purpose, some meaningful context, even if that context is a world controlled by gods who are indifferent to human suffering. The event itself was simply wanton destructive violence, with no purpose other than to inflict enormous suffering, but we can find meaning to our response through the divine spirit in great music and its more gifted performers. That the Philadelphia Orchestra’s incoming music director spent his early childhood severely traumatized by the destruction of his homeland might present meaningful opportunities for musical performance here to engage its audience’s emotional needs.

Robin Mitchell-Boyask

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