Concerts at an Exhibition

Classic Arts Features   Concerts at an Exhibition
Here's a guided tour through the Philadelphia Orchestra's 2007-08 season, which opens September 20 at Verizon Hall.

"Monumental." That one word encapsulates The Philadelphia Orchestra's 2007-08 season. Music Director Christoph Eschenbach has created another overwhelming season filled with the biggest works of the repertoire. Audience members could easily get lost trying to plan their personal concert schedules.

The secret is knowing where things are. "Monumental" is more often associated with museums than orchestras, so imagine the season as a great museum of music, with galleries of masterpieces waiting to be heard. Since the season is just beginning, there's still time to take a tour, here led by four guides with distinct perspectives: From the stage come Rossen Milanov, Orchestra associate conductor, giving a viewpoint from the podium with experience as a music director in Europe and the U.S.; and Daniel Matsukawa, Orchestra principal bassoon, and former principal of four other orchestras, bringing the performer's perspective. From the audience come Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, a longtime subscriber, and a powerful arts advocate who has made Philadelphia a hotspot for film production; and Doug Kenney, an undergraduate at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, who first saw the Orchestra at a Student Rehearsal and has already become a dedicated subscriber.

The Blockbuster Exhibitions

Long before King Tut introduced museums to the "blockbuster," Leopold Stokowski brought it to orchestras with the U.S. premiere of Mahler's Eighth Symphony in Philadelphia in 1916. This season, Maestro Eschenbach will lead over 400 musicians in performances of the "Symphony of a Thousand" on April 30-May 3. "Everybody's excited about this," says Pinkenson. "I hadn't known much about Mahler until I heard the Orchestra play his First Symphony. That really turned me on to him."

Performances of Mahler's Eighth are rare due to the sheer number of performers required, and many Orchestra members haven't played it before. "When I was seven, I sang this with the New York Philharmonic in a boys choir and it was awe-inspiring," says Matsukawa. "This will be the first time I perform it as part of an orchestra."

In honor of the 90th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, the Orchestra will present a multi-program festival in January and April of his symphonic and theatrical music: Jeremiah (Symphony No. 1), Kaddish (Symphony No. 3), and music from On the Town and West Side Story. The Orchestra has also commissioned two works from Philadelphia favorite Jennifer Higdon: One features the local trio Time for Three, the other violinist Jennifer Koh and the Philadelphia Singers Chorale.

"Leonard Bernstein was my television hero growing up," says Pinkenson. "We had music classes in school, and he taught me to love them, just as I was falling in love with him. I'm also looking forward to hearing Time for Three, whom I met during the making of the local documentary Rittenhouse Square."

In a musical foray south of the border, the Orchestra will introduce Night of the Mayas by Silvestre Revueltas, one of Mexico's greatest composers. The music began as a soundtrack to a film about a modern Mexican couple who lived like their Mayan ancestors, and the composer later adapted it into a concert suite. The Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya leads the work, which features an enormous percussion section (November 23-24).

Another event requiring massive forces is Richard Strauss's An Alpine Symphony on February 21-23. Composed over a period of 30 years, Strauss's work includes 16 offstage musicians as part of the enormous orchestra. Charles Dutoit conducts, which intrigues Milanov: "He is of course a master of the French repertoire, so it will be very exciting to hear him interpret German music."

Star Attractions

All museums have their superstars — the great works that everyone instantly recognizes and loves. For Kenney, this season has two such works: Orff's Carmina burana (March 6-8) and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (September 20-October 2). "For so many people, these two titles started immense passions for this music," he says. Indeed, the opening chorus of Carmina burana, "O Fortuna," has been used — or misused — in everything from films to sporting events.

When The Rite of Spring begins, all eyes and ears will be on Matsukawa, playing perhaps the toughest bassoon solo in the repertoire. "The first time I played it was 14 years ago at a music festival, coincidentally with Maestro Eschenbach. I remember his kind words. He simply holds out his hand and lets me play the solo the way I want. He also appreciates that each night I play it slightly differently."

If there's one piece that's an even bigger star, it's Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra, thanks to Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey (and that black obelisk). In honor of the film's 40th anniversary, Vladimir Jurowski will present selections from its legendary soundtrack, including Johann Strauss Jr.'s "On the Beautiful Blue Danube" Waltz and Zarathustra (April 10-12). "This was the first film of my era to use classical music with such great success," says Pinkenson.

Special Exhibition — New Works by Old Masters

This season the Orchestra will introduce major works by revered composers that are new to its audiences. Headlining the list is Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri, a secular oratorio from 1843 with text based on a Persian legend as retold by an Irish poet. Simon Rattle conducts the Orchestra's first performance of the work, which features six vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra (November 29-December 2).

Eugene Ormandy made Sibelius one of the Orchestra's signature composers, and the 50th anniversary of the composer's death will be commemorated with two seldom heard works: the Third Symphony and the funeral march In Memoriam. "I have never played nor heard the Third Symphony before," says Matsukawa, "so I am really looking forward to that." Milanov is especially eager to hear the conductor, Osmo Vänskä: "This is rarely performed music and he has very interesting insights."

Another composer championed by Ormandy was the Argentinean Alberto Ginastera. The Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned him to write Popul Vuh: The Creation of the Mayan World, based on Mayan mythology, but he died before he could finish it. In 1989 Leonard Slatkin gave its world premiere with the Saint Louis Symphony, and on March 27-29 he will bring it to the orchestra for which it was originally written.

New Acquisitions

Art institutions must acquire new works, so likewise the Orchestra will unveil two world premieres and three U.S. premieres. The world premieres are the Jennifer Higdon commissions for the Bernstein Festival in January. Of the three U.S. premieres, Milanov is particularly excited about the Orchestra's co-commission by Marc-André Dalbavie in honor of the centennial of the birth of Olivier Messiaen. "I'm very impressed with his sense of orchestral color," Milanov says (May 8-13).

Principal Trumpet David Bilger is the soloist for the U.S. premiere of the concerto Eirene (Greek for "peace") by Austrian composer Herbert Willi (March 6-8). The third premiere is an orchestral work by one of Germany's most prolific composers, Wolfgang Rihm, entitled Transformation 2 (September 27-28).

The Portrait Gallery

In portraiture, it's one person alone in the world. In concertos, it's one against 100. Pianists at least have 88 keys as weapons, and there will be ten piano soloists this season, three taking on Beethoven's concertos: Hélène Grimaud with the mighty "Emperor" (No. 5) (December 7-8), Radu Lupu with the First (February 13-19), and Rudolf Buchbinder with the Fourth (March 27-29). Prokofiev, Mozart, and Liszt are also represented.

Eight violinists take center stage, led by four Orchestra household names. Joshua Bell joins Milanov for songs from West Side Story and Barber's Violin Concerto (January 31-February 2), Sarah Chang performs Mendelssohn (November 1-6), Midori returns with Britten (October 4-6), and Concertmaster David Kim plays Stravinsky's Violin Concerto (November 15-17).

And how about 6,939 vs. 100? That's the number of Verizon Hall organ pipes available for Thierry Escaich's Organ Concerto, performed by the composer May 8-13.

The Core Collection

Every museum is ultimately judged by its collection of the old masters. Likewise, each orchestral season depends on the core repertoire; interestingly, the guide most adamant about this is the youngest, Doug Kenney. "I'm very pleased that so much of this season gives the people what they want to hear," he says. "This season will succeed in drawing in more people to hear classical music for the first time, or reinstate old interest long forgotten."

Among not-to-be-missed symphonies are Mozart's "Jupiter" (February 21-23); Beethoven's Fifth (October 11-16); Brahms's Third (April 3-5); and Rachmaninoff's Second (December 13-15). Orchestral showcases include Debussy's La Mer (October 4-6), Ravel's Bolero (November 23-24) and La Valse (December 7-8), Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet (January 10-15), and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (March 27-29).

Self-Guided Tours

Of course, this particular tour of the 2007-08 season is just one of innumerable possibilities. The Orchestra offers so much more than its subscription season, especially for first-timers. "The Orchestra is doing a monumental job with such programs as Sound All Around, Access Concerts, and the Campus Classics promotions in exposing people to music at a young age and getting them to their first concert," says Kenney. Whatever you choose, remember, this is The Philadelphia Orchestra. As Milanov says, "You can't go wrong. All these concerts will be extraordinary."

Andrew Preis was formerly The Philadelphia Orchestra_ã_s director of communications and now lives in New York City.

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