For more than a century, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s New Year’s Eve concert served as a dressy feel-good evening. Annually, some of the world’s finest professional musicians let their hair down long enough to perform Viennese waltzes and other flights of musical fancy, followed by the singing of “Auld Lang Syne.” The orchestra’s music directors — from Stokowski to Ormandy to Muti to Sawallisch to Eschenbach — indulged this annual exercise in schmaltz, but I always came away with the feeling that they’d rather be home alone with a piano and a few of their favorite dead composers.
That all changed after 2012 with the ascent of exuberantly youthful Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who gleefully sported psychedelic spectacles and proclaimed the concert “the best party in town.” Bramwell Tovey picked up the ball last year, seizing the opportunity to demonstrate that he is as much standup comic as conductor. (Introducing Strauss’s "Emperor Waltz," Tovey exhorted the Verizon Hall audience to “picture elegant ladies in long white gloves that cover all their tattoos.”)
This year, the orchestra’s nearly-sold-out audience was sufficiently loosened up and the weather outside sufficiently frigid that the few evening gowns in attendance were covered by layers of sweaters, mufflers, and coats. Guest conductor Stéphane Denève assembled a global east-to-west tour of musical hors d’oeuvres based on the flimsy premise that many countries celebrated the New Year a few hours earlier. (Among other charming factoids, Denève pointed out that while Russia has 11 time zones, China has only one. Who says there are no benefits to a command system of government?)
The menu included the lovely Polish-American soprano Alexandra Nowakowski, currently a fourth-year student at the Academy of Vocal Arts, who sang the younger Johann Strauss’s “Mein Herr Marquis” from the Viennese New Year favorite, Die Fledermaus, and Frederick Loewe’s “I could Have Dance All Night,” from My Fair Lady. Two performers from Cirque de la Symphonie — a mostly Russian gymnastics troupe whose shtick is performing acrobatic stunts not in circus tents but in concert halls to live classical music— engaged in restrained tomfoolery to Ponchielli’s "Dance of the Hours." Arturo Márquez’s gorgeous "Danzion 2," a 1994 Mexican work reminiscent of an Argentine tango, was a welcome novelty to this critic’s ears, even if its conclusion struck me as virtually identical to a passage from Louis Moreau Gottschalk (who died in 1869).
Antidote for anger
Perhaps most notably, Denève managed for two hours to relieve me of any thought of such omnipresent vexations as Donald Trump and sexual harassment. Ultimately, the orchestra’s New Year’s Eve concert is not so much about music as about reaffirming a sense of community among Philadelphians who cherish the enduring value of beauty and truth as an antidote to pettiness, anger, and hatred. In that respect it’s still, as Yannick put it, the best party in town. And I suspect it always was.