The inimitable Philadelphia Sound! We all know it and love it. For over 100 years it has captivated audiences around the globe and attracted the world’s most accomplished composers, soloists, and guest conductors—from Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, and Stravinsky to James Levine, Yo-Yo Ma, Lang Lang, and John Williams. And in the 2015-16 season it will be center stage as Yannick Nézet-Séguin, in his fourth year as music director, leads the Philadelphians on a journey through works that have helped make that Sound so famous.
Photo: Chris Lee
“The ‘Philadelphia Sound’ is a generosity of sound, spirit, and emotion,” says Yannick, “handed down through generations of musicians, who breathe and phrase together in a way that produces the most exceptional colors, the most uniquely identifiable sound.”
Chief among the works with famous Philadelphia connections is Mahler’s Eighth Symphony—the “Symphony of a Thousand”—which The Philadelphia Orchestra, led by Nézet-Séguin, performs in March 2016, nearly 100 years to the day since its U.S. premiere at the Academy of Music. In the audience for the world premiere of the piece in Munich in 1910 was a 28-year-old Leopold Stokowski, who described the work as a “flashing insight into infinity.”
“The ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ is best known for its size, and therefore, the impressively majestic force of its first part,” says Yannick. “But in the second part, Mahler leads us on a completely different journey, using these same forces to reach some deeply secretive corners of our souls, eventually bringing them, and every listener, to a sense of peaceful harmony.”
In March 1916 The Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski gave the U.S. premiere of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8. The 100th anniversary of those landmark concerts are being celebrated in March 2016.
Stokowski was determined to bring the masterpiece to America. Despite its high cost, the Symphony received its U.S. premiere on March 2, 1916, at the Academy of Music. In addition to an orchestra of 110 musicians, there were eight soloists, a children’s choir of 150, and 800 adult singers on the stage. Orchestra management, concerned that performers would outnumber the audience, need not have worried: Nine performances sold out. The Philadelphia Orchestra had arrived.
“This was a pivotal moment in the Orchestra’s history,” says Orchestra Vice President for Artistic Planning Jeremy Rothman. “This really launched the Orchestra and Stokowski onto the international stage. Over the course of the season, with that very much as an anchor, we’re looking at other important composers and works that the ensemble has championed over the past century.”
American jazz trumpeter and composer Hannibal’s One River, One Land, One People, a new work commissioned by The Philadelphia Orchestra, receives its world premiere in November.
The Eighth Symphony’s universal message of unity, togetherness, and friendship is another theme of the season as Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestra explore the connections between community and love of one’s country in music. How do patriotism, pride, and a sense of self influence a great composer, whether writing from “home” or far from it? Works by Sibelius, Janáček, Bartók, and Tchaikovsky explore human relations to our world, our countries, and one another. So, too, does American jazz trumpeter and composer Hannibal’s One River, One Land, One People, a new work commissioned by The Philadelphia Orchestra and receiving its world premiere. The Orchestra performed Hannibal’s highly acclaimed African Portraits, detailing the slave experience, in 1997, and two years later gave the world premiere of his One Heart Beating, one of its Centennial Commissions. The new oratorio features chorus, soloists, and text written by the composer.
Also premiering in the upcoming season are two new works written specifically for Philadelphia Orchestra principal players. Principal Clarinet Ricardo Morales performs a new Clarinet Concerto by Jonathan Leshnoff and Principal Timpani Don Liuzzi headlines a Timpani Concerto by Temple University’s Maurice Wright.
“This season we celebrate the Orchestra’s great legacy of bringing life to new masterworks,” says Nézet-Séguin. “This year’s commissions celebrate the spirit of community and feature our superstar musicians. Hannibal’s oratorio speaks to our shared values and hopes. New works by Leshnoff and Wright shed light on the great virtuosity of our musicians, and create showpieces for some less-often featured solo instruments like timpani and clarinet.”
Concertmaster David Kim and Principal Cello Hai-Ye Ni also get a turn in the spotlight when they team up for Brahms’s “Double” Concerto. And Principal Flute Jeffrey Khaner performs Mozart’s First Flute Concerto.
This past January the Orchestra took a grand journey through St. Petersburg during a three-week festival. In January 2016 the ensemble focuses on the cultural and musical importance of another great music capital: Vienna. Whether they were born to it or drawn to it, composers found boundless inspiration in that great city. Nézet-Séguin leads the Orchestra through a whole range of music and moods, from the exquisite waltzes of the native-born Johann Strauss Jr., to Mahler’s controversial orchestration of a Beethoven string quartet, to the symphonic masterpieces of Bruckner and Brahms, and a piece by living Viennese composer H.K. Gruber.
The city of Vienna is the focus of a three-week festival in January.
“Over the course of these three weeks, we will capture the full character of Vienna, which ranges from the regal elegance of Johann Strauss, Jr., that sort of Old World Viennese flavor, to what is a more serious aspect of music in Beethoven and Mahler—the two composers that did the most to propel symphonic music as we know it today,” says Rothman, “… while also recognizing that Vienna has a bit of a dark character and dark history as well, reflected in the political awareness of H.K. Gruber.”
Throughout the season the Orchestra presents beloved and familiar works in new and novel ways. Audiences will hear innovative takes on favorite pieces: a theatrically informed production of Handel’s Messiah, for example, with stage direction by the acclaimed James Alexander (who also stages a complete version of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale); and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in its original jazz band version. The music ranges from the Baroque and period-informed to the contemporary, and includes “fresh composers and fresh pieces” says Rothman, as well as some “great composers that are underrepresented in our repertoire” like Ives, Miaskovsky, Janáček, and Casella.
Enhancing the season is a roster of acclaimed guest conductors and soloists, including interesting debuts as well as old friends who are intimately acquainted with the Philadelphia Sound. Among the highlights are superstars like Yo-Yo Ma (performing John Williams’s Cello Concerto); Williams himself conducting a special evening of his legendary film scores; Lang Lang setting off the fireworks with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1; and James Levine, conducting the ensemble for the first time in 20 years.
Not only will the music of John Williams be featured on numerous concerts in the 2015-16 season, but Williams himself joins the Orchestra in May 2016 to conduct a special evening of his legendary film scores.
Three great friends of the Orchestra are on the podium for two-week conducting residencies: Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Guest Conductor Stéphane Denève with more of the music of John Williams, alongside beloved pieces by Beethoven and Musorgsky; Gianandrea Noseda with works by Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, and some personal Italian favorites; and Donald Runnicles leading programs of Beethoven and Brahms.
Other returning conductors include Vladimir Jurowski, Fabio Luisi, Marin Alsop, Robin Ticciati, and Orchestra Conductor-in-Residence Cristian Măcelaru with an all-Stravinsky program.
Making their much-anticipated debuts are conductors Pablo Heras-Casado and Andrés Orozco-Estrada; Ton Koopman, conducting from the harpsichord, and his wife, harpsichordist Tini Mathot; and pianists Daniil Trifonov (subscription debut) and Alexandre Tharaud, among others.
Guest artists returning to the Verizon Hall stage include cellist Johannes Moser; violinists Gil Shaham, Leonidas Kavakos, Hilary Hahn, and Christian Tetzlaff; pianists Jonathan Biss, Jan Lisiecki, Leif Ove Andsnes, Yefim Bronfman, and Hélène Grimaud; soprano Angela Meade; and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe.
Completing the season are special events, holiday concerts with the multi-talented Bramwell Tovey returning to the podium and keyboard, family programming (including a new production of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, led by Nézet-Séguin), plus summer residencies and other performances on the road. The Orchestra estimates it’s traveled some 825,000 miles in the last century, spreading the Philadelphia Sound far and wide. But, says Nézet-Séguin, it’s here at home that the Philadelphians most love to play.
“The Philadelphia Orchestra may travel the world, but it is you, our beloved Philadelphia audience, that makes it possible for us to create the great Philadelphia Sound. Always, we feel our city behind us … this is our home. First and foremost, we play for you.”
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.