The Philadelphia Orchestra officially kicked off its 121st season on September 30 with a gala Opening Night Celebration Concert “on the Digital Stage,” which translates to “stay home with your TV, phone, or computer.” Several celebrities and musical soloists—Billie Jean King, Lang Lang, Angel Blue, and Steve Martin—appeared briefly on the screen and contributed their star-power to the evening’s entertainment.
The program hit a number of positive notes, with largely cheerful and upbeat festivities on this, traditionally the night of the biggest fundraising event of the orchestra’s season. But, of course, as the first opening night of our pandemic times, it was unlike any opening night in the orchestra’s history.
A striking opening
Hosting the celebration from their remote locations were Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor and music director, and Matías Tarnopolsky, president and CEO of the orchestra association, both sporting a casual look (no ties) and an attitude of encouraging hopefulness. Most striking about this opening night was not only its way of standing up to the intimidations of COVID-19, but also for taking on the thornier themes of social justice and how the arts can be change agents to uproot racism and prejudice.
The musical program was light but engaging. Filmed earlier this year at the Mann Center, the orchestral segments included the first stage performance of Valerie Coleman’s Seven O’Clock Shout. Socially distanced, behind plexiglass, and wearing masks when possible, the musicians delivered a performance worthy of the full orchestra. Coleman’s short work bristles with energy, but also flows into passages of languid beauty, with some lovely solo woodwind passages of the sort one can hear only at a classical concert. Coleman is also a flutist and founder of the Imani Winds.
Rossini, Martin, Lang Lang, Mozart
Following a chipper rendition of Rossini’s overture to The Thieving Magpie, the musicians turned to the first Philadelphia Orchestra performance of Steve Martin’s bluegrassy Rare Bird Alert (in a world-premiere orchestration by Carol Jantsch). This featured Martin, probably at home, performing most masterfully on the banjo to the hum of the other players and occasional bird calls.
Pianist Lang Lang made a brief appearance performing the 30th of the Goldberg Variations with polish and feeling. He was followed by the orchestra’s performance of the aria “Timor di me?... D’amor sull’ali rosee” from Verdi's Il Trovatore. The aria was dedicated to the memory of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg and sung with warm intensity by Angel Blue.
The program concluded with a rather dainty performance of Mozart’s Symphony in A major, K201. While the Philadelphia Orchestra is experiencing a temporary incarnation as a chamber symphony, that doesn’t mean we should lower creative expectations (chamber symphonies are among the liveliest groups in the classical field today). Mozart’s K201 is bursting with pent-up personality and aching to be given a chance to run free.
A good pitch
There were many delights, however, to be savored in this unusual season opener, not the least of which was a short feature on the orchestra’s partnership with the KIPP West Philadelphia Charter School. Chrysyn Harp, music director at the school, explained the program’s success in bringing music lessons and instruments to local children. The smiling young faces and sincere testimonials were more effective than any fundraising pitch I’ve heard in a long time.
Continuing under the season theme, Our World NOW, the next Philadelphia Orchestra concert will be Sight/Sound/Symphony, slated for livestreaming at 8pm on October 8. Nézet-Séguin will be joined by visual designer Refik Anadol in a program of works by Simon, Beethoven, and Schubert.
Image description: A photo of the Philadelphia Orchestra performing with singer Angel Blue. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin wears a white jacket and black face-mask. Angel Blue wears a long-sleeved pink dress and stands inside plexiglass partitions.
What, When, Where
Our World NOW: An Opening Night Celebration. Valerie Coleman, Seven O’Clock Shout; Rossini, overture to The Thieving Magpie; Steve Martin, Rare Bird Alert (orchestrated by Carol Jantsch); Verdi, “Timor di me? … D’amor sull’ali rosee” from Il Trovatore; and Mozart, Symphony No. 29. Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Lang Lang, piano; Steve Martin, banjo; Angel Blue, soprano. The Philadelphia Orchestra. Livestreamed on September 30, 2020, and available for 72 hours. (215) 983-1999 or philorch.org.