The Philadelphia Story

by Sedgwick Clark

The first Chapter 11 fallout predicted by the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra occurred yesterday with the appointment of the PO’s excellent first clarinet, Ricardo Morales, as principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic.

As everyone in our beleaguered music world knows, on April 16, after years of mortal combat between management and musicians, the board of directors declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy–the first major U.S. orchestra to do so. Fortunately, concerts will continue, at least for the time being.

Here’s the story: The Philadelphia Orchestra board is tired of living up to its long-term contract agreements, and the musicians are deluded into thinking that worldwide economic crises don’t apply to them. Chapter 11 will allow the board to renegotiate such costly contracts as the musicians’ pension funds. Over the past year a new management, headed by Alison Vulgamore, who proved herself a strong leader in her previous job as president of the Atlanta Symphony, has been trying to convince the musicians of the dire situation, but too many years of distrust stand in the way.

For decades the once-challenging artistic leadership has been content to give its conservative audience what it wanted: superb performances of mostly non-threatening repertoire, presented in a traditional manner. Chief conductor Charles Dutoit has been a frequent guest conductor of the orchestra for 30 years and knows how to get the best out of these extraordinary musicians. As one who has reveled for over four decades in what Stravinsky called the orchestra’s “chinchilla echo,” hearing the ensemble’s annual concerts at Carnegie Hall leaves no doubt that the Philadelphians remain fabulous.

The Swiss conductor has one year to go in his four-year interim appointment between the five-year mismatch of Christoph Eschenbach and the ascension of the young Music Director Designate Yannick Nézet-Séquin (“call me Yannick”) in September 2012. Problem is, Philadelphia audiences have slipped to around 60 percent of capacity for some five years. Will next season’s shockingly rearguard programming sell more tickets in our still-parlous economy? One bright ray of sunlight is that all of Yannick’s concerts early this year were reportedly sold out–indicating audience hibernation rather than extinction. (Balanced against such optimism, the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s testy music critic Peter Dobrin was “underwhelmed.”)

I still haven’t recovered from Gramophone‘s December 2008 rating of the world’s top 20 orchestras, in which the Philadelphia Orchestra was scandalously relegated to a “Past Glories” sidebar along with the NBC Symphony (which disbanded in the 1950s after Toscanini’s retirement!) and l’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (which gradually lost its standing after founder Ernest Ansermet’s retirement in 1968 after 50 years).

Nor has Philadelphia. Whether or not one agrees with that panel of 11 international critics, it was a wakeup call that no music lover–player, management, board of directors, subscriber–in the City of Brotherly Love can afford to ignore.

Company Filmed After All

So, in the end, an outfit called Screenvision made a film of the New York Philharmonic’s production of the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical, Company. This hilariously jaundiced 1970 take on marriage will be given “a limited number of engagements” in movie theaters beginning June 15. I saw the first of the four Philharmonic performances, on April 7, which was only the second time that orchestra, cast, and crew had actually worked together on the same stage. As reported in a preview piece in the Times, bi-coastal rehearsals were conducted individually via iphone, Skype, and MP3 files. To no surprise, it felt tentative throughout; the later performances were reportedly more secure.

I don’t watch much television, what with my concert schedule, but if these 14 singing actors represent an “all-star cast of television and stage heavyweights,” I’m missing less than I thought. None rose above serious deficiency in personality and vocalism, especially the fatally pallid lead, Neil Patrick Harris as Bobby. Some critics have suggested that the character is intended to be weak; if so, Harris went far beyond the call of duty. Even Patti LuPone, apparently trying to avoid any comparison with Elaine Stritch’s supremely campy Joanne in the original production, made surprisingly little impression.

Nonetheless, Sondheim’s wondrous music and lyrics conquered all, and the Philharmonic’s augmented orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick were a constant pleasure, despite Paul Gemignani’s four-square beat. Sondheim’s lyrics always vex the capacity of the human ear, particularly in a venue as large as the 2,800-seat Avery Fisher Hall. The woman next to me complained that the orchestra was too loud, but the engineers will fix balances in the mix. As I found in the Metropolitan Opera’s HD presentation of Nixon in China, close-ups and more vivid sound will strengthen the performances considerably. I will definitely catch the screening.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts:

4/28 Metropolitan Opera. Wagner: Die Walküre. James Levine, cond.; Voigt, Westbroek, Blythe, Kaufmann, Terfel, König.

4/29 Avery Fisher Hall. New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert; Emanuel Ax, piano. Debussy: Estampes. Messiaen: Couleurs de la cité céleste. Mahler: Symphony No. 5.

4/29 Alice Tully Hall. Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center; Thomas Hampson, baritone; Gilbert Kalish, piano. Crumb: Selections from Six American Songbooks. Tan Dun: Elegy: Snow in June for Cello and Percussion.

4/30 Carnegie Hall. Bang on a Can All-Stars and Friends; eighth blackbird; Kronos Quartet; So Percussion. Reich: Mallet Quartet (N.Y. premiere). WTC 9/11(N.Y. premiere). 2 x 5 (N.Y. premiere). Double Sextet.

5/1 Alice Tully Hall. Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center; Gilbert Kalish, Wu Han, pianos; Daniel Druckman, Ayano Kataoka, percussion. Xenakis: Rebounds for Percussion. Bartók: Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Crumb: Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III) for Two Amplified Pianos and Percussion.

5/1 Zankel Hall. Christian Tetzlaff, Antje Weithaas, violins. Leclair: Sonata, Op. 3, No. 6. Bartók: Violin Duos. De Bériot: Duo Concertante, Op. 57, No. 1. Ysaye: Sonata for Two Violins in A minor.

5/3 Peter Jay Sharp Theater at the Juilliard School, 5 p.m. Milton Babbitt Memorial. Musical selections.

5/3 Carnegie Hall. The Philadelphia Orchestra/Charles Dutoit; Paul Groves, tenor; Petra Lang, mezzo; Robert Gierlach, bass-baritone; David Wilson-Johnson (baritone); Men of the Philadelphia Singers Chorale. Stravinsky: Apollo. Oedipus Rex.

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