new hall is open, the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians seem almost giddily
happy, the nay-sayers about the hall were wrong, and I was wrong about
Christoph Eschenbach. I shall address these topics in that order.
After almost a full century of waiting,
the Philadelphia Orchestra on 15 December 2001 moved out of its old
digs at the Academy of Music (an opera house dating from the mid nineteenth
century) and into Verizon Hall, designed by architect Raphael Vinoly
with acoustics by Russell Johnson, whom English readers will recognize
as the brains behind the sound of the Birmingham hall. Seen &
Heard has previously covered another Johnson-designed hall,
Concert Hall. Unlike Birmingham, and some
other Johnson projects such as Meyerson Hall in Dallas, Verizon Hall’s
visual aspect is intended to match its acoustics, as every inch of it
is covered in tropical hardwoods that undulate around a cello-shaped
interior (yes, it really is shaped like a cello inside!). There is not
a straight line any place in the interior walls. When a friend at the
complex let me in alone during the first week, I was simply stunned
by the glowing, almost at times golden, hues. It is beautiful. Older
members of the Philadelphia audience, who were perfectly happy with
the Academy because they knew nothing else, were extremely uneasy with
the move, but many of them have almost swooned with delight since the
opening. This is no small achievement, and as a testament to their conservatism,
allow me a brief anecdote: during Simon Rattle’s first visit, he made
a statement during a post-concert conference about the Academy being
"the worst hall I’ve ever been in during my entire life,"
a comment which left me and about three other people applauding wildly,
with the rest of the audience shifting nervously. Well, Rattle was right,
and we look forward to his judgment here next month! What especially
struck me was how intimate the hall feels. I knew that seats surrounded
the players on three levels, but the shift of so much seating to the
sides and back really does produce a space remarkably compact for 2,500
Verizon is part of a three-facility
complex under a single glass roof, named the Kimmel Center for the Performing
Arts after its largest donor (this is the US, after all). The other
venues are a small black-box theater and a 650-seat recital hall that,
when finished next month, should be outstanding. A single city block
sits under a glass arch that manages to evoke the Crystal Palace, gallerias
in Italy and an old train shed a few blocks away. While the outside
is deceptively plain, the inside is an extremely pleasant place to be,
with several levels of walkways, cafes, an arts-based shop and frequent
free entertainment. Watching the light change through the roof during
the course of a day is a treat in itself. It has become somewhat trendy
to carp about the building not being perfect or utterly appropriate;
I do not understand the point of these criticisms, because as a space
used by real people, Kimmel works magnificently. During the first weekend
40,000 people walked through Kimmel’s doors. It is an indoor, public
space that invites visitors to linger. Since the first weekend, I have
seen its open interior spaces colonized by seniors groups and the stroller
crowd from nearby Rittenhouse Square. On the day of the first orchestra
children’s concert, one felt a true sense of musical community, as families
swarmed around the complex, with brass bands playing above and orchestra
members hanging out, in public (!) in the main plaza café. To
see the Kimmel Center, go to http://www.kimmelcenter.org.
That family concert was my first
taste of the acoustics, so please allow me the indulgence of reporting
on an event for kids, albeit an event led by Wolfgang Sawallisch.
We were seated behind the orchestra, a position I’d enjoyed in some
European venues, though this time we were dead ahead of Maestro. My
kids loved the proximity to the musicians, and the adults seemed to
enjoy this as well. In humanizing the face of classical music for new
audiences, such closeness will be invaluable. At close range, the sheer
joy of the musicians in their new surroundings was quite visible. This
is a moody group who had been more nervous than the audience about the
move; the specter of Avery Fisher Hall in New York looms long over all
new music halls in America. I am fairly sure I saw them smile more in
one afternoon then than I had in over thirteen years in the Academy,
and, one month later, they were still smiling (more on that later).
Sawallisch himself seemed almost beside himself with joy, and I am glad
audience members will now be able to see the warmth of his personality
(though he himself has misgivings about sharing certain moments with
the audience). Once the music started, I was immediately struck by how
much violin sound was coming back to us, which indicated the sound was
indeed reflecting off the rear walls as intended, an excellent barometer.
Sections sounded apart cleanly and with enough warmth to suggest that,
once acoustical adjustments are complete, the acoustics will be appropriate
to the Orchestra. I should note here that some early reports of the
acoustics in the print media have been extremely unfair, as they have
not fully acknowledged that the hall really was not finished when the
orchestra moved in, and that there is a planned period of gradual adjustment.
As with other Johnson halls, a major part of the sound lies in adjustable
reverberation chambers which, as of the middle of February, remained
shut. These chambers will supply much of the aura of warmth, and currently
the Orchestra is adjusting to the base level of the hall’s sound. To
complain about an unfinished hall does not say much for the critic who
makes such a complaint. Indeed, so captious were some reviews that an
editor for Musical America was moved to complain about the complainers.
The other typical Johnsonian variable, the moveable canopy ("spaceship"),
similarly finished in tropical hardwoods to blend in more fully with
the rest of the hall, has remained fairly high, though experiments in
lowering it have begun; there have been some concerns that its height
may have caused a few ensemble problems with the players having problems
hearing themselves, problems which seem to have ameliorated quickly.
Because the Orchestra had little time to test Verizon before its opening
as it was only barely ready for the scheduled unveiling, it is adjusting
to the hall and adjusting the hall itself, on a week-to-week basis.
Artec officials are remaining in Philadelphia through this period. The
testing will continue through the 2002-3 season, Sawallisch’s final
one as Music Director, and Sawallisch will have the final say on all
Two weeks later I returned for
the major event of the opening weeks, the complete Beethoven concertos
with Sawallisch and Murray Perahia, who really seems to have
recovered fully from his health problems of the past decade. This time
I was in my initial visit to what will be my normal seats at the front
of the second tier, where I heard a clear, slightly dry sound, with
excellent sectional articulation, though the strings seemed to have
a slight veiled quality. The piano sound, on the other hand, was simply
outstanding, even if a good part of that sound was the pianist’s doing.
Perahia has retained his lyrical lucidity while simultaneously moving
to a more fully Romantic approach to the music. This refined version
of traditional, "non-HIP" Beethoven practice matched Sawallisch’s
style almost perfectly; indeed I was startled to read that the two had
never worked together before. Some aspects of certain performances,
such as the slow movement of the Fourth Concerto, simply glowed all
around. It was interesting to note the wide variations in ensemble size
Sawallisch chose throughout the series; I do not know whether Sawallisch
made these adjustments based only on his view of the scores, or his
desire to test the hall under varying conditions, or a combination of
the two. His account of the Coriolan, despite deploying the largest
forces of the series, was curiously underpowered and lacked dramatic
tension, and one could attribute the caution to their working through
the sound in Verizon.
Dramatic tension was certainly not
lacking last week when Christoph Eschenbach made his first visit
as Music Director Designate, leading the Second Symphony of Rouse and
the Ninth of Dvorak. In brief, it was a stunning, at times, electrifying,
debut. When Eschenbach suddenly appeared on the Philadelphia radar screen
about eighteen months ago, many Orchestra observers, including me, were,
at best, surprised, mainly because he seemed to violate two of the official
prerequisites for the job: primary devotion to Philadelphia and a history
of recent engagements. Eschenbach, who has not appeared here since 1995,
is a globe trotter and collects orchestras. The musicians were badly
split by a decision that had come largely from the trustees and management.
I had vividly negative memories of his engagements in the early and
mid 1990s: big looping arm motions that seemed more like a parody of
Lorin Maazel than necessary to communicate with the players, grotesque
tempo shifts and a seemingly burning conviction that the symphonies
of Bruckner and Schumann have more than one slow movement. Eschenbach,
on the basis of last week’s concerts, has grown as a conductor. His
technique is cleaner and more precise, and, while certainly more flamboyant
than Sawallisch, his larger gestures seem more born from passion than
the need to showboat.
His ability to communicate with
the players and connect with the audience was immediately apparent.
Before a full Friday afternoon crowd, generally attended by a throng
of retirees, a few students and people ducking out from work early,
Eschenbach greeted his "new Philadelphia friends," said a
few words about Rouse’s music and his intention to bring much of it
to Philadelphia, and then handed the microphone over to Rouse himself.
Composers often get the chance to explain themselves before or after
concerts, but Eschenbach’s decision to have Rouse address everyone was
inspired. Luckily, the music itself bears the added preparation. Rouse
writes music that is accessible, but not overly comfortable, and with
a distinctive voice; as soon as one starts thinking "that sounds
a little like Mahler or Berg" one realizes that it really does
not. The center of the Second Symphony is an adagio in memory of the
composer Stephen Albert that, at first hearing, is one of the few completely
successful and genuinely affecting slow movements composed since Shostakovich.
This is a symphony that deserves many performances and the Philadelphians
attacked it with a commitment they normally do not give to modern music.
If this is an indicator of Eschenbach’s taste in the music of our time,
then, Philadelphia, which needs a director attuned to contemporary music
more than it realizes, has made the right choice. One local composer
recently observed that the Philadelphia Orchestra has not had a director
with a passionate commitment to modern music since Stokowski. It certainly
has one now. The energy Eschenbach radiated from the podium was extraordinary
and the music was greeted with cheers – cheers for modern music from
the most conservative crowd imaginable. During their returns to the
stage, Rouse stood at the center and Eschenbach well to the side, a
clear sign that Eschenbach knows the composer is most important and
the public should acknowledge that. The Dvorak was equally successful.
Eschenbach did employ generous variations in tempo, but not in such
a way as to violate the spirit of the music, and the Philadelphia Orchestra
gave him its ‘Sound’ with playing of visible commitment. Players I spoke
to afterwards were uniformly excited about their future with him.
The future seems very much on Eschenbach’s
mind. In addition to his subscription concerts, he led a combined rehearsal
of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, where
young musicians sat and played beside their professional counterparts.
Eschenbach also took the Curtis Institute of Music by storm, rehearsing
its orchestra in the Dvorak; he had wanted to do the Rouse there but
financial considerations did not permit it. Curtis officials and Eschenbach
spoke excitedly about their future relationship. The expanding Opera
Company of Philadelphia is also trying to lure him into opera productions.
In essence, Eschenbach in very short order has jolted the cultural pulse
of the city and could become a sort of General Music Director that one
never sees in America. However, we still wait for news on which of his
other commitments Eschenbach will surrender in order to bring these
possibilities fully to life. Sawallisch, during his final year as Music
Director, will accompany the pianist Eschenbach in a Beethoven concerto
and Eschenbach will devote five full weeks as Director Designate, with
every program featuring a significant work of contemporary music. Even
if Eschenbach does not handle the central repertoire as well as Sawallisch,
the outgoing director has promised four to six weeks every year as Laureate
(a commitment he will keep, unlike some other past directors), and Rattle
continues to promise a substantial block of time in alternating years
as his only American engagement.
The musical future of Philadelphia
looks very bright indeed.