Broadway remains shut down. Choruses have disbanded. Holiday performances of The Nutcracker are on hold across the land. Live productions for large in-person audiences become an increasingly distant memory, but with Sight/Sound/Symphony, its second streaming concert of the season, the Philadelphia Orchestra continues to share its artistry during these autumn months.
Granted, there are no blockbusters like Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand on the table this fall. Under music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, we are seeing smaller concerts than in previous years and a greater use of the facilities of the Mann Center. But the orchestra has interpreted this as an opportunity rather than a liability. Smaller ensembles mean lower costs, which translate into more accessibility: streaming concerts may draw audiences who haven’t experienced live classical music before.
Full of ideas
The orchestra’s 2020 “Digital Stage” season marches ahead with some imaginative programming despite the daunting challenges of the time. Under Nézet-Séguin, the second in this concert series streamed at 8pm on Thursday, October 8. Prerecorded at the Mann, the program featured a world premiere by Carlos Simon; Beethoven and Schubert favorites; and a visual component designed by artist Refik Anadol. Simon and Anadol each reflected on their contributions before their works were aired, a nice touch for newcomers to the concert experience.
The program opened with Simon’s Fate Now Conquers, an homage to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, commissioned by the orchestra. The work was inspired by an 1815 journal entry by Beethoven that begins, “Fate now conquers, and I am hers…” This short, engaging work includes some brief quotations from the symphony, but is full of original ideas and Simon’s own response to the staccato restlessness of destiny and the web it casts over human lives.
Missing the complete Seventh
Displaying a cheerful disposition that suggests curiosity and derring-do, the 35-year-old Anadol related his work—a shape-changing conglomeration of blobby forms—to artificial intelligence, but to me it was like reliving Peter Max in the ’60s (not a bad thing, I might add). The onstage visuals pulled the viewer down a corridor of cathedral-style pillars, with Anadol’s undulating forms appearing as if projected on a wall at the end of the corridor. The effect, according to the artist, was created by feeding a computer millions of visual images consonant with the time in which Beethoven lived.
However, I was disappointed that in the composer’s 250th anniversary year, the complete Beethoven’s Seventh was not performed. This truncated edition of the Seventh gave the impression that the familiar second movement is the meat of this symphony, with Movements 1, 3 and 4 excised like fatty ends. Still, the movement was beautifully performed and a treat to ears long starved for live-ish music.
Unfinished and continuing
The program ended with Schubert’s self-truncated Symphony No. 8, “the Unfinished,” in a lovely performance by the Philadelphians. The Eighth is indeed the perfect work for a more intimate setting. The reduced forces yielded a more personal sound, pining for some ineffable solace in a care-worn world.
The performance featured moving passages played with delicacy and poignancy by woodwind soloists, while the string section resonated with a rare warmth and depth as its sensuous intensity traveled through my headset.
In this and the opening concert last month, the Philadelphia Orchestra brought some innovative touches to concert streaming, a process they continue to master with every passing event.
Image description: A digital rendering of a stone cathedral-style corridor whose pillars are lit by shafts of golden light. The end of the corridor is a tall arched panel covered with flowing, abstract blue-and-brown forms.
What, When, Where
Sight/Sound/Symphony. Carlos Simon; Fate Now Conquers. Ludwig van Beethoven; Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, second movement. Franz Schubert; Symphony No. 8 in D minor, D. 759. Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The Philadelphia Orchestra, with visual design by Rejik Anadol. Prerecorded at the Mann Center, streamed on October 8, 2020, and available for 72 hours. (215) 983-1999 or philorch.org.