He arrived in Philadelphia 100 years ago as a 30 year old with just a few years of orchestral conducting under his belt, but with a host of big plans and novel ideas for this orchestra: his orchestra. Enigmatic, visionary, charismatic, and boundlessly curious, Leopold Stokowski marked a turning point for The Philadelphia Orchestra, transforming a nascent regional orchestra into one of America's greatest musical institutions. So, how does an orchestra pay tribute to a man who only looked forward to what was coming next, and never dwelled too long on the past (including his own)?
"We want to recapture Stokowski's spirit as an orchestra and a city," says Philadelphia Orchestra Vice President of Artistic Planning Jeremy Rothman. "It is inspiring to find compelling and innovative ways to honor this provocative artist who occupies such an important place in the history of this orchestra." Fortunately, the Orchestra has another young, engaging, and dynamic artist in Yannick Nézet- Séguin, beginning his tenure as music director of The Philadelphia Orchestra this season, to embody and modernize many of these ideas. He was willing to dive into the Stokowski legend to pay tribute to his great forbear, while also putting his own stamp on his inaugural season. "Yannick is taking us all on a journey throughout this season. He also invited many of our guest conductors and guest artists to participate in a season-wide tribute to Stokowski, creating a fascinating array of programs," Rothman says.
Yannick kicked off the Stokowski celebration conducting several wildly-successful concerts at the Academy of Music in June. Highlights included a near recreation of Stokowski's first-ever program with The Philadelphia Orchestra, a Stokowski-inspired Audience Choice Concert, lighting and video effects in the concert hall, lobby displays of historical items that included his podium and concert tails, and a screening of segments from Disney's Fantasia, with live-accompaniment. Throughout the 2012-13 season the Orchestra will engage with Stokowski in other ways, revisiting pieces the maestro premiered with the Fabulous Philadelphians, experimenting with programming in thought-provoking combinations, and approaching the symphonic concert as an all- encompassing artistic experience inclusive of lighting, choreography, and film.
Perhaps the centerpiece of this season's Stokowski celebration is an unprecedented multi-dimensional presentation of Stravinsky's monumental The Rite of Spring, led by Yannick (February 21-24). Stokowski was drawn to the Rite from the outset, giving the work its American premieres in concert and staged form with The Philadelphia Orchestra (the latter with Martha Graham portraying the sacrificial virgin). For the 100th anniversary of the piece in 2013, the Orchestra is reimagining Stravinsky's masterpiece, regaling it with a musical and visual treatment that celebrates its status as one of the 20th century's iconic musical works while placing it firmly in our own time. "We wanted to do something fresh and bold that was in keeping with the original work but also in the spirit of how Stokowski might have presented it if he had access to today's technology," Rothman says. To achieve this, the Orchestra called on Philadelphia Live Arts, curator of the city's groundbreaking Live Arts and Fringe festivals, and an organization with its finger on the pulse of the avant-garde. Live Arts guided the Orchestra to Ridge Theater, a frequent player in the New York contemporary music scene, and a natural fit for the Rite project. Ridge is renowned for its inventive collaborations with ensembles such as Bang on a Can, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and the American Webern's Passacaglia, Op. 1, and excerpts from Berg's influential opera Wozzeck, both given their U.S. premieres by Stokowski and the Philadelphians in the late 1920s-early '30s; and excerpts from Le Grande Macabre by Ligeti, a composer championed by Rattle (May 16, 18, 19; May 17 at Carnegie Hall).
In addition to his almost fanatical commitment to the composers of his own era, Stokowski was also a devoted Wagnerite, sometimes programming entire evenings of the composer's music. Last month renowned Wagner conductor Donald Runnicles offered a tribute to the composer (whose birth bicentennial is in 2013) and Stokowski with a program featuring orchestral highlights from The Ring. On January 24- 25 Yannick conducts Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, a love letter to his wife, Cosima, and named for his newborn son. Later in the season conductor Andrey Boreyko presents a much different take on Wagner, pairing music from Das Rheingold with Christopher Rouse's Götterdämmerung-inspired Der gerettete Alberich (Alberich Saved) for solo percussion and orchestra, featuring Colin Currie (March 21-23). "This is a fascinating program, and Rouse uses the final notes from Wagner's Ring Cycle as a jumping-off point for something really unexpected and exciting. I think Stokowski would have been interested in hearing how the composers of our own time interact with Wagner," says Rothman.
Stokowski also had a unique relationship with Bach's music, demonstrated by his strikingly idiomatic orchestral transcriptions of the master's works. "The transcriptions are perhaps the thing Stokowski is most known for outside Philadelphia," says Rothman, citing Walt Disney's use of Stokowski's famous orchestration of Bach's D-minor Toccata and Fugue as the prelude to Fantasia. "Stokowski saw these transcriptions as a vehicle for showing off The Philadelphia Orchestra. He wasn't afraid to augment a work of genius with his own ideas and interpretations. The idea of using chimes and percussion in Bach is totally anachronistic, but Stokowski was courageous enough to try it. And it works," Rothman elaborates. Several of Stokowski's transcriptions are offered this season, including "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme," led by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (February 1-2) and the Toccata and Fugue (heard last month), led by Emmanuel Krivine, in a program inspired directly by Stokowski concerts of December 1935.
In keeping with his ever-evolving conception of the symphonic concert, Stokowski experimented relentlessly with stage set-up, acoustics, lighting, and programming. It was not uncommon for him to program a concert's major work in the first half, using the second half as an opportunity to take audiences somewhere else entirely. "Stokowski's concerts created a complete and immersive environment," says Rothman. In the final concerts of his inaugural season, Yannick experiments with Stokowski-style programming, offering a first half of several of Dvořák's lively Slavonic Dances and Janáček's blazing Sinfonietta and a second half pairing Brahms's incomparable Violin Concerto and Enescu's flavorful Romanian Rhapsody in D major (May 23 _25). "It's Yannick's hope that this sort of programming will challenge our audiences to hear these works in a new way," remarks Rothman. And, who knows, maybe this exuberant and passionate young conductor will continue to find revolutionary ways to showcase The Philadelphia Orchestra, his Orchestra.
Steven Ziegler has worked in publications for The Philadelphia Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony. He currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.