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S & H Article

New Beginnings in Philadelphia by Robin Mitchell-Boyask

With reviews of Sawallisch in a Beethoven concerto cycle with Perahia & Eschenbach in Rouse and Dvorak


The 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, Lucerne’s KKL 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 audience members.

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 acoustical matters.

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.

Robin Mitchell-Boyask


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