Building Sound Bridges with Philadelphia Orchestra

Classic Arts Features   Building Sound Bridges with Philadelphia Orchestra
In a series of bold and innovative concertsthis season, The Philadelphia Orchestra is offeringlisteners new ways to experience music. A profile of the Orchestra's new Sound Waves concertseries.


A cellist duets seamlessly with video of Chinese folk musicians. One of America's best-loved conductors tells the story of his family's life in the theater. Techno music is blended with Latin-American folk rhythms. The hidden origins of a seminal 20th-century work are revealed.

With the Orchestra's new Sound Waves concert series, listeners can travel the globe without leaving Philadelphia. Programs investigating ancient Asian music (Tan Dun's The Map, November 12), Latin sounds both old and new (The Inca Trail, A Musical Journey, January 14), and New York's Yiddish theater (The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater, February 15 and 16) inaugurate this landmark series. Sound Waves came about from a desire to expand the ways The Philadelphia Orchestra presents its art. "These concerts will really showcase the versatility of the Orchestra," Vice President of Artistic Planning Jeremy Rothman says. "It is our responsibility and desire as a performing institution to continually give our audiences new ways to experience the Orchestra. There is definitely something in these programs for the whole spectrum of our audience." Despite the diverse origins of the music on the Sound Waves series, the three programs are nevertheless united by their synthesis of Western art music and the musical traditions of different cultures. Some of the music may be familiar to audiences, while other works are being performed in Philadelphia for the first time. The series kicked off last month with Tan Dun's The Map, led by the composer and featuring The Philadelphia Orchestra's Shanghai-born principal cello, Hai-Ye Ni. Throughout his career Tan Dun has explored different ways of expressing his musical voice, utilizing technology, his Western training, and the sounds of his native China. The composer has described The Map, first performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra in November 2004, as a "multi-media concerto grosso," a description that perfectly captures the work's unique interplay between cello soloist, orchestra, and video of Chinese folk musicians. The Map was paired with Tan Dun's Internet Symphony No. 1 ("Eroica"), composed for last season's launch of the YouTube Symphony, comprised of musicians from around the world performing together via the internet.

In January The Philadelphia Orchestra travels through South America on the ancient Inca Trail in a program created by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, music director of the Fort Worth Symphony. The Peruvian-born Harth- Bedoya, a popular guest conductor in recent seasons with the Fabulous Philadelphians, developed the program to uncover three centuries of forgotten riches by South American composers, as well as present several new works by exciting young composers, including Gabriela Lena Frank, Jimmy L‹pez, and Osvaldo Golijov. "There is such a remarkable wealth of great musical traditions from this region. We often don't realize the impact this music has on works we hear and perform in our daily lives," Rothman says. "It's rhythmic, it sings, and it's contagious. You'll hear some unknown composers that you'll want to experience more of. And you'll hear music from some of the most exciting and important living composers like Osvaldo Golijov and Gabriela Lena Frank. That's what makes this project so important and so revolutionary."

Adding to the excitement of the concert is the appearance of two of the Orchestra's dynamic musicians as soloists: Principal Flute Jeffrey Khaner is soloist in Frank's tone poem Ilapia, while Associate Principal Cello Efe Baltacıgil is featured in Golijov's Mariel. The Orchestra is performing both works for the first time. While Golijov (b. 1960) has become well-known for his work with such collaborators as the Atlanta Symphony, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, and soprano Dawn Upshaw, Frank (b. 1972) and Lopez (b. 1978) are emerging as unique talents, finding new ways of blending their cultural backgrounds with modern technique. L‹pez is Peruvian by birth but has also spent time at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and at UC Berkeley. His Fiesta!, also receiving its Philadelphia Orchestra premiere in this concert, contrasts the pulsing rhythms of traditional Latin music with the electronic sounds of urban club music. Frank is of Peruvian-Chinese and Eastern European Jewish descent and has traveled extensively throughout South America researching folk music, in addition to drawing inspiration from the works of Bart‹k and Ginastera. In Ilapa she melds Andean folklore and music and her own modern musical language. Golijov's music also bridges cultural divides, as his Argentinean upbringing and his Eastern European Jewish ancestry are equally influential. The Inca Trail concert also offers a complete sensory experience, as stunning photographs and video depicting the lush beauty of South America complement the music.

Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky were the leading lights of New York's Yiddish theater at the dawn of the 20th century. They also happen to be the grandparents of renowned conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. In New York's Jewish cultural life, the Yiddish theater held a place of importance, offering social and political commentary, reinterpretations of the classics, as well as unparalleled entertainment. Employing the vocal talents of four Broadway singers, as well as archival video and audio footage and photographs, Tilson Thomas tells the story of his grandparents' rise to stardom and how they forged a new kind of theater. The performance offers a road into music that is largely unknown, but that was later influential on such composers as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. "This is really a touching story of an immigrant family living the American dream," Rothman says. "The whole presentation is very vividly realized and I think people will immediately connect with these great humorous songs and stories." Tilson Thomas wears many hats in this unique concert, from conductor to raconteur to singer and pianist. Philadelphians will also have a chance to learn more about the Thomashefskys as the Orchestra's Broad Street neighbor, the Gershman Y, pays tribute to Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky in an exhibition starting this month and continuing through February featuring posters, photographs, and objects from their illustrious careers.

In addition to Sound Waves, The Philadelphia Orchestra continues its popular Beyond the Score series, originally developed by the Chicago Symphony and enthusiastically brought to Philadelphia last season by Chief Conductor Charles Dutoit. The series is the brainchild of composer and scholar Gerard McBurney, who will share the stage with Dutoit and the Orchestra for three Beyond the Score presentations this season: Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4 (October 1), Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben (March 3), and Holst's The Planets (May 13). While the works in question might be familiar to Orchestra audiences, they are being presented in a completely new manner. In the first half of the concert, each work is placed in its historical and political context. Live musical examples are juxtaposed with a fully integrated visual component consisting of contemporary artwork, archival photographs, and reminiscences from composers. After intermission, the audience returns with a fresh perspective for a complete performance of the work.

This season's Beyond the Score presentations are notable in that they each tackle a pinnacle work from the early 20th century (well, almost; Strauss's Heldenleben was completed in 1898). Earlier this season, the Orchestra shed light on Shostakovich's suppression of his ambitious Symphony No. 4. In March Strauss's masterpiece is deconstructed to show how its clever composer references Beethoven, Wagner, and his own music in his most autobiographical score. And in May the confluence of ideas that led to the creation of Holst's best-known work, The Planets, including astrological mysticism, Russian exoticism, Eastern philosophy, and English folksongs, is explored. Beyond the Score concerts provide the listener with a unique musical immersion.

As works like Tan Dun's The Map have shown, technology has helped bridge different musical cultures in ways previously unimagined. This has given musicians new and exciting ways of interacting with audiences and fresh approaches to presenting music. "We want to put these programs out there and give our audiences the opportunity to experience The Philadelphia Orchestra in new ways," Rothman says. With concerts like Sound Waves and Beyond the Score, the Orchestra has achieved just that.


Steven Ziegler is former communications coordinator for The Philadelphia Orchestra. He currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area. P

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