Here is what you might expect if you were to find yourself in the audience at the Academy of Music for a Philadelphia Orchestra concert: Beautiful music from one of the most skilled ensembles in the world. (Naturally.) A piece of music you haven't heard before. (Not uncommon). There might also be some theatrics in store. A bit of showmanship to add to the drama. Perhaps an unusual seating arrangement of the musicians on stage. Maybe a little (or a lot of) tinkering with the lighting in the hall. Or an experiment with the acoustics. The conductor, after all, is energetic, full of ideas, and passionate about technology.
In what year are you attending this modern-sounding performance in a very old building? It could be 2012, when the Orchestra returns to the Academy for a special concert series: the first in a decade: led by the exuberant Yannick N_zet-S_guin conducting, among other great works, highlights from Fantasia accompanied by gorgeously re-mastered video from the groundbreaking film. You might, however, have had this very concert experience 100 years earlier, when the Grand Old Lady of Locust Street was home, and the music director was Leopold Stokowski.
"He was not a fan of tradition," says Orchestra Vice President for Artistic Planning Jeremy Rothman of the legendary conductor. "He was about new experiences."
Stokowski took the helm of The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1912. That the centennial of his leadership debut coincides with the arrival of N_zet-S_guin presents a perfect historical moment to focus on both the Orchestra's future and its past: particularly the part of the past that looked forward with such success. Says Rothman: "It was really Stokowski's ambition and spirit of innovation that put the Orchestra on the map."
That same spirit of innovation, says N_zet-S_guin, will be a hallmark of the upcoming season. "By being daring, by wanting to expand the repertoire of the Orchestra, and also having more collaborations with different groups, more visual aspects in our concerts, I am actually paying tribute to our very own past."
Stokowski's legacy will be celebrated throughout the 2012-13 season, beginning with an extraordinary four-performance return to the Academy of Music this June. Unless they've been patrons at the Academy Ball, most fans have not had a chance to hear an Orchestra performance at the Academy since the ensemble moved to the Kimmel Center 10 years ago. The return to the 19th-century opera house where generations of Philadelphians were first exposed to the Orchestra and classical music will honor tradition (the Friday matinee program of Brahms, Ippolitov-Ivanov, and Wagner is almost an exact duplicate of Stokowski's first appearance with the Orchestra on October 11, 1912); but it will also have a decidedly 21st-century twist, promising no less than "magical imagery."
"If Stokowski were alive today and had the technology available to him that we have today ... what might he do in that hall?" says Rothman. "For him, there were no barriers as far as making music accessible to all. He was willing to take a risk."
In his 29 years in Philadelphia, Stokowski was called everything from genius to charlatan. He liked to arrange or, more accurately, rearrange: musicians on stage, music in a score. Long before he went to Hollywood and shook hands with Mickey Mouse, he was championing his newfangled ideas, rankling management and audiences while simultaneously bringing Philadelphia into world renown. Together they premiered more than a hundred 20th-century works: including the U.S. debut of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 in 1916; the so-called "Symphony of a Thousand" featured 950 chorus members in addition to the 110 musicians.
It was during Stokowski's tenure that the Orchestra made its first recordings. He explored not only the audio possibilities, but also the visual. He staged Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (with Martha Graham dancing): another U.S. premiere. He brought a real-live elephant (and a camel, a donkey, and three ponies) on stage to the delight of children in the audience for a performance of Saint-SaêŠns's Carnival of the Animals. He teamed up with the animated creations of Walt Disney for Fantasia, challenging audiences of 1940 to see the colors and shapes of the music played (and recorded in the Academy of Music) by the Fabulous Philadelphians.
The Orchestra will perform selections from Fantasia in a Saturday morning Family Concert at the Academy and in that Saturday night's concert while iconic images from the film dance across screen: in high definition. Accompanying waltzing flower petals, swirling fairies, and an in-over-his-head sorcerer's apprentice being terrorized by water-bearing broomsticks is, of course, not in the everyday repertoire and, therefore, not an easy task.
"Syncing live music to a film: that doesn't slow down or wait: is always a unique challenge," says Rothman. "A conductor wants the music to sound natural and free, while staying in sync with the key moments in the film. Plus for such a familiar work like Fantasia, audiences will notice if everything isn't perfect!"
The inclusion of a Family Concert in the series underscores another of the former music director's passions: making music accessible to young people. The Orchestra's popular Family Concerts of today are the descendants of Stokowski's Children's Concerts, begun in 1921, and his Saturday afternoon Youth Concerts, which he started as a respite from the Depression.
The final concert of the June 21-23 series is another nod to a Stokowski touch: Audience Choice. Concertgoers will be able to choose the final program through Playbill, Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging. Although one could imagine him an avid Tweeter, even Stokowski probably never dreamed of the Internet. Rothman says it's unclear exactly how he polled his audiences of the 1920s and '30s. Perhaps some clue will emerge as the Orchestra culls the archives throughout the upcoming season.
"The more we dig, the more we continue to learn ... it reinforces Stokowski's legacy as an innovator," says Rothman. "We can only hope that we're also capturing his sense of imagination and courage."
Margie Smith Holt is a New York-based writer and journalist. She is former director of communications for The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and was the host of The Philadelphia Orchestra's Global Concert Series.