Music critics spend considerable time listening to new recordings and reviewing them. And as wonderful as they can be, this critic has always felt that there is nothing to compare with the experience of a live performance. To be in the same hall with an orchestra is something that too many music lovers take for granted now that digital recording and cutting-edge playback technology reproduce music with astonishing fidelity to life. And between CDs and mp3 downloads, podcasts, and web radio, a vast repertoire of music is at your fingertips, whether you listen at home, in your office, or even in your automobile. Nevertheless we should never forget that even the best blow-your-socks-off orchestral recording is still but a facsimile of the orchestra itself in the flesh.
Ironically, the wealth of available recordings, not to mention broadcast programming, often skews our perceptions of what works are played more often than others. Many scores we think we've heard live, we've only heard on record. And for a variety of reasons, many familiar works are actually performed far less frequently than we think.
This season The Philadelphia Orchestra is gearing up a rich array of music that its audiences will be hearing them play for the first time in many years, if not for the first time ever. World premieres, of course, occupy a unique place, and this season Philadelphia audiences will get a jump on the rest of the musical world with several world premieres by the gifted and fascinating Jennifer Higdon. On January 10, 11, 12, and 15, the Orchestra unveils her Concerto 4-3 (i.e., a concerto for  three  string instruments and orchestra). This will be followed on January 17, 18, and 19 by the world-premiere performances of another inventive treatment of concertante form, Higdon's The Singing Rooms, for violin, chorus and orchestra.
Premieres are one matter, but what about those rarely heard or never-before heard works mentioned above? This raises the question: Why do some works wait years to be performed, and why are others, which are nominally in the core repertoire, actually performed so infrequently? In some cases, it's due to the sheer luck of the draw, and to the fact that some music directors — Christoph Eschenbach noteworthy among them — are more imaginative and creative than others and are willing to delve more deeply into the shadows of the repertoire to entice listeners with interesting novelties. In other cases, it is because certain works in a composer's oeuvre are simply overshadowed by more popular works from the same pen. Some works are very costly to produce because they demand particularly large forces, while in other cases the fashions that once made a work popular have changed over time.
It is noteworthy that two works being played by the Philadelphians for the first time this season are linked to Mexico's ancient Mayan legacy. On November 23 and 24 the dashing, young Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya will lead Night of the Mayas by the seminal Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. Although his career was cut short by his early death, Revueltas (1899-1940) left an admirable legacy of colorful music often evocative of the rich culture of his native land. He wrote Night of the Mayas in 1939 as a score for the eponymous film — a somewhat rambling tragedy about two young Mexicans who make an attempt to live as their Mayan ancestors, in a Mayan village in the Yucatán. The posthumous four-movement concert suite, arranged by the Mexican conductor José Ives Limantour, will be performed in these concerts.
Popol vuh: The Creation of the Mayan World by the great Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) will be performed on March 27, 28, and 29 under the baton of another adventuresome podium figure, Leonard Slatkin. The vast score, framed in seven movements, was inspired by Mayan beliefs in the origins of their universe, and represents Ginastera's urge to incorporate specifically New World elements into the complex musical style that he had developed in the course of his career. He began work on Popul vuh in 1975 on commission from The Philadelphia Orchestra, but left it unfinished at his death. In common with most of Ginastera's work, the orchestration here is superb, and we can feel that the composer revels in the seemingly limitless power and subtle color of his large instrumental forces.
Another work whose rarity may surprise Philadelphia audiences is the 1926 Sinfonietta by the Moravian composer Leos Janácek (1854-1928). Written for a large, but not inordinately large orchestra, the work is certainly well represented on record. Nevertheless, the performances slated for Feb. 13, 15, 16, 17, and 19 under Charles Dutoit will be the first by the Philadelphians since 1991. It originated out of a brass band performance that Janácek heard and which moved him to write several fanfares of his own. Subsequently Janácek was invited to compose an occasional work for the opening, in Prague, of a Gymnastic Festival sponsored by the influential Czech Sokol (or Eagle) youth movement. Janácek worked up his preliminary fanfare material into a Military Sinfonietta — he later dropped "Military" from the title — dedicating the finished score to the "Czechoslovak Armed Forces." Memorable for its heroic brass fanfare motif, the Sinfonietta was intended, according to the composer to evoke "contemporary free man, his spiritual beauty and joy, his strength, courage, and determination to fight for victory."
On February 7, 8, and 9, Alan Gilbert will conduct a program featuring two rarities, Béla Bartók's Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra, featuring soloists Emanuel Ax and Yoko Nozaki, and Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 2 ("The Four Temperaments"). Bartók's Concerto is, in fact, an arrangement of one of his most frequently performed works, the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, which he had composed for the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) in Salzburg, and which he premiered there in 1938, playing the solo piano parts with his second wife (and former pupil) Ditta Pásztory-Bartók. He expanded this into a full concerto in 1940, and it received its world premiere two years later in London under Adrian Boult's baton. By this time the Bartóks had emigrated to New York, where the composer lived out his final years. Indeed his solo performance with his wife at the Concerto's American premiere, in January 1943 with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, proved to be Bartók's last public appearance. Thereafter the onset of leukemia took its toll.
The Nielsen performance will be another first for the Orchestra, and a surprising one, considering that it is regarded as the most popular of the composer's symphonies. The Symphony's title is derived from an old woodcut depicting the four human temperaments. The first movement (Choleric) is irascible in tone. In the second, (Phlegmatic), Nielsen musically illustrates a temperament lacking drive and will power, its thematic material seemingly rooted in place and unable to move out of its original key. The third movement (Melancholic) explores a downcast frame of mind, paralyzed by depression. But in the last (Sanguine), optimism bursts forth in a joyous rondo that culminates with a grand and grandiose martial finale.
Philadelphia Orchestra audiences may also be surprised to learn that a work by that most iconic of Americans, Leonard Bernstein, will be receiving its first performance by the Orchestra. Bernstein's Kaddish (Symphony No. 3) for speaker, chorus, and orchestra, was inspired by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and is dedicated to his memory. Kaddish takes its name from the Hebrew prayer for the dead, and in the score, Bernstein uses the prayer's haunting, traditional chant melody to express his exploration of spiritual doubt. (The Philadelphia Orchestra will present a Leonard Bernstein Festival in January and February to mark the 90th anniversary of his birth.)
Finally, two more great symphonic choral works are highly anticipated by audiences this season. On November 29, 30 (Carnegie Hall), and December 1 and 2, Simon Rattle will preside over an unjustly rare revival of Robert Schumann's secular oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri. Based on a touching fable in the 19th-century Irish poet Thomas Moore's Orientalist narrative Lalla Rookh, this secular oratorio of 1843 is one of Schumann's most beautiful compositions. The titular Peri, a kind of "fallen angel" in Persian and Islamic mythology, must do penance in order to regain entry to Paradise. After two attempts, which inspired Schumann to compose some of his most moving and delicate music, she succeeds, to a joyous chorus of triumph. Throughout the work Schumann's deft and colorful instrumentation is as skillful and imaginative as that of Berlioz, putting to rest any lingering notions that Schumann was a mediocre orchestrator.
No one would ever have accused Gustav Mahler of mediocre orchestration. — certainly not to his face. And on May 1, 2, 3, and 6 (at Carnegie Hall), Christoph Eschenbach will continue the Orchestra's multi-year Mahler cycle with performances of Mahler's Eighth Symphony. Popularly known as the "Symphony of a Thousand," because of its immense choral and orchestral forces, not to mention the offstage brass choirs, platoon of soloists, and a full pipe organ, this colossal work was composed between 1906 and 1907, and received its world premiere in 1910, conducted by the composer. Six years later, the Eighth was given its U.S. premiere by The Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski.
It is divided into two massive parts that attempt to encapsulate the eternal spiritual nature of mankind. The first is a setting of the medieval Latin hymn, Veni, creator spiritus, while the second part is a cantata-like setting of the final scene in Goethe's philosophical poem Faust, part two. Mahler himself characterized the finale of this symphony to his friend and champion, the conductor Willem Mengelberg: "Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. These are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving."
To experience these rare birds of the repertoire is to experience some of the most emotionally moving of all symphonic scores.
Barrymore Laurence Scherer is a music critic for The Wall Street Journal. The American edition of his new book, A History of American Classical Music (Naxos/Sourcebooks), is being published this fall.