Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Philadelphia Orchestra at the Academy of Music

As some of you know, I am mad keen on classical music and have been going to concerts ever since I was a small boy who dutifully toddled along with the family to the annual Queensland Symphony Orchestra concert in the Maryborough Town Hall. The orchestra used to do an annual tour of the huge state of Queensland in a special train stopping in the major cities and towns to perform each night. It must have been a wearing trip. By the way, I sometimes fell asleep during the second half of the concert.

When I got to University in 1965 as a fresher I was volunteered to line up a day in advance to buy tickets for the Orchestra Youth Concerts and decided my father would be pleased if I attended and so bought a season ticket. By the second concert, I was hooked and have been a classical music fan ever since. I can still remember Tamas Varsary playing a Beethoven Piano Concerto wearing very polished patent leather shoes.

In 1986, I was reading the Philadelphia paper and saw that season tickets for the Philly Orchestra were quite reasonable. In my enthusiasm, I bought tickets for Marianne and myself for 24 concerts! Poor Marianne. By chance, my father came to visit for the first concert and he used Marianne's ticket. The first piece we heard was the Berlioz Roman Carnival Overture conducted by Riccardo Muti. It was simply fabulous and my father was hugely impressed. 

Over time, I reduced the number of concerts since it is a two-hour drive in each direction. The concerts were held in the Academy of Music and eventually we got better seats in the front row of the amphitheatre which is on the top floor level with the chandelier. The acoustics are best up at that position. However, in 2001 the orchestra moved to the new Verizon Hall a block down the street. The new hall had severe acoustic problems and sounded like a bathtub. 

The orchestra went through a period where its artistic and financial survival was at stake and the new General Manager raised the price of tickets substantially. I stopped buying the season tickets and started to pick some afternoon concerts to attend each year. The long drive and parking issues just were getting too difficult. However, the best thing that happened to the orchestra was the appointment of Yannick Nezet-Seguin as the conductor. He is superb and the orchestra has returned to its former glory.

When the brochure for the season's concerts arrived last year, I noticed that for one weekend the orchestra would return to the Academy of Music. The program was attractive and I wondered if my health would be good enough for me to climb the steps to get to a decent seat. Fortunately, I  improved enough to feel confident to go so I bought tickets and managed to get two seats in the front row in a slightly better position than our earlier seats.

Years ago we had to climb a lot of stairs to get to the top level. As part of the Academy refurbishment, elevators have been installed that go all the way to the top floor. It must have been nostalgia day for many of the audience since we seemed to be young by comparison to most of them. As I was waiting for Marianne to return from the bathroom. I noticed an older lady sitting on a set of steps and she was having trouble getting up. I walked over and assisted her and I felt so good that finally, I was able to help somebody else stand up. 

Going down the steep steps to the front row was un-nerving but I managed it. Those with vertigo would find it difficult. Usually, the curtain would be open so we wondered why the curtain was closed.

The huge chandelier. In the background are the seats we used to sit in when we first started going to concerts at the Academy.

The curtain had been closed so that some of the features of the auditorium could be pointed out to the audience using lighting prior to the performance.

The concert got underway with a modern piece by a young Canadian lady named Vivian Fung. The piece was only about ten minutes long and it is called Dust Devils. I quite enjoyed it though Marianne said that after the concert there were some old ladies in the bathroom who were not too impressed.

Since 2020 is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth, the orchestra is playing most of his works for orchestra this year including the 4th piano concerto. We had Yefim Bronfman as soloist and he gave a fine performance. He is a big powerful bloke, towering over the diminutive conductor and if you want to see how he can beat a piano into cowering submission, watch this Prokofiev. It's interesting to watch the musicians on stage nodding their heads to the music.

The piano was removed during the interval and the orchestra tuned up for the second half. Most of the 1986 orchestra members have retired or died in the intervening years, but the orchestra has retained a special sound, largely influenced by the dry acoustic of the Academy. There is very little reverberation so the string players have to adjust their sound to compensate. Rachmaninov was very impressed by this sound and declared this orchestra to be his favourite and his 3rd symphony was premiered on this very stage back in 1936. So it was a privilege to hear the piece in this concert.

It was a 'wow' performance and you will eventually be able to hear it since it was recorded by DG. The orchestra is normally excellent, but this was special and they knew it. The first thing I noticed was how loud the sound is in that hall. It has a visceral impact that is missing in Verizon Hall. The violins sound a little bright but the basses and cellos have a depth in the bass notes that sounds just right. They know how Rachmaninov should sound. I really enjoyed the performance and look forward to hearing the recording. I suspect this might be my last concert in Philly before we leave for Australia, and what a way to end.

This photo is for Robin who will recognize nearby Monks Cafe where we have been going for nearly 30 years to have mussels and Belgian beer. It's as good as ever. And of course, we can come out reeking of garlic which we can breathe over the poor patrons sitting next to us in the concert hall.

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing performance. Thanks for sharing the video link and as always, for your very captivating descriptions!