Retuning the Philadelphia Orchestra: A pitch for Ormandy's ideas

Questions for Yannick Nézet-Séguin: His interest in, and ear for, total ensemble sound, and his presence in auditions.
Questions for Yannick Nézet-Séguin: His interest in, and ear for, total ensemble sound, and his presence in auditions. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 12, 2011

If the authors of the Philadelphia Orchestra's newly unveiled strategic plan intended to craft a document with generous wiggle room, they succeeded. No matter which artists and what kind of repertoire and concert formats materialize in the coming years, president Allison B. Vulgamore will be able to point to the plan and say the orchestra had been open in its intentions.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so, it turns out, do orchestra fans. The artistic-space-holder feel of this blueprint raises the real possibility of trading Copland and Carter for circus acts, and listeners are appropriately alarmed.

"Somehow I doubt that the Philadelphia Museum of Art would ever replace Matisse and Rembrandt with velvet Elvises in response to slowing admission levels," a reader wrote in response to an Inquirer article about the plan.

"That rustling sound you just heard was Eugene Ormandy turning in his grave," wrote another catastrophist.

A little perspective, please. I walked over to said grave at Fourth and Pine Streets last week, and the orchestra's fourth music director is nestled as peacefully as ever in his fern-covered plot. It should be remembered that, more than any other music director before or since, Ormandy clearly understood his job description to encompass the entertainment end of the spectrum.

It's no accident that his grave marker bears a corporate insignia: that of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association. Even in death, Ormandy knows which side his bread is buttered on. A pragmatist of the first order, he is credited with saying: "It's all very well to have principles, but when it comes to money you have to be flexible."

What does this mean for the orchestra's future and its eighth music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin? Everything. If the strategic plan is going to reconnect the orchestra with its previously larger listenership, it will bring back into existence an orchestra that is all things to all people.

Ormandy was a master at that. Peeling back some of the mythology that has obscured the Ormandy years is instructive. Yes, he premiered plenty of new works. But looking, for instance, at the 1969-70 season, the core of his tenure, what we find is a curator who cared whether you listened.

In that season of about 100 concerts, there was plenty of Brahms, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. New music was played, but always dosed sparingly. Is there any doubt that this February 1970 program would sell out today? Dvorak Slavonic Dances on the first half, then Mendelssohn's Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream? Special concerts were perhaps more populist: An all-Rachmaninoff benefit; all Beethoven on opening night; Strauss waltzes on New Year's Eve.

The salient point, then as now, isn't so much what the orchestra plays as that it play with conviction - and that the conductor choose repertoire he believes in.

"We will not have one maestro setting the agenda," the plan states, "but rather Yannick will convene a creative team of individuals," including himself, Vulgamore, and artistic vice president Jeremy Rothman. Let's hope this idea dies on the vine. Artistic leadership by committee is a path to mediocrity. It's worth restating the job descriptions: Artists do art, administrators sell tickets and raise money. Vulgamore should not be making artistic decisions.

There are serious doubts about whether the orchestra's identity as a top international ensemble can be preserved, but a plan won't allay them. Here are the big issues: Will Nézet-Séguin rehearse the orchestra in a way that cultivates not only the ensemble's highly evolved string sound but also blends brass and woodwinds? Does he have an interest in total ensemble sound? Does he have an ear for it and the technical ability to elicit what he wants? Will he be a presence in auditions, actively listening for like-minded new players?

This orchestra's sound deserves historic-landmark status, but it was developed largely on a populist framework, and in this regard the orchestra seems to be aiming at a legitimate restoration. Light classics bring no shame - many a fan came to classical by way of the Grieg Piano Concerto or Debussy's Children's Corner.

Film scores are a wonderful idea - if executed right. Nino Rota calls out for a retrospective. The composer for Fellini, Zeffirelli, and Coppola is an endlessly fascinating talent. And Rota has local resonance: He was a Curtis graduate, and his great advocate is his student Riccardo Muti. It doesn't take much imagination to envision a program with the orchestra performing his ultra-Romantic Piano Concerto No. 2, with its ironic references to Tchaikovsky and Schumann, on the first half, and the ensemble playing beneath a screen with excerpts from his controversial score to The Godfather on the second half.

Rota is far from a special case. Korngold, Shostakovich, Copland, Virgil Thomson, and others wrote terrific film scores. Presented thoughtfully, film music has the virtue of being able to make serious artistic points while speaking on other levels. Christopher Plummer intoning Henry V while the New York Philharmonic plays William Walton's score for the Laurence Olivier film - as they will next season - hardly seems like an artistic compromise.

Broadway and jazz are more problematic; the Philadelphia Orchestra has little experience with them. That's not to say it isn't possible, but again, it only works if pieces are smartly chosen and guided from the podium by someone with a genuine, ongoing interest in the repertoire.

The fact is, the symphony orchestra is a good deal more flexible - and egalitarian - than you might suppose from looking at programs from recent decades. The orchestra's current self-seriousness is not central to its historic identity. It began in the Muti era, when the orchestra abandoned a perfectly fine annual residency in Ann Arbor and a dedicated following after 49 years because he felt the city too provincial. What the orchestra wouldn't do for that kind of audience now.

As this discussion about artistic identity proceeds, it cannot be about any one person's agenda. It's not even about the orchestra's needs: If its endowment were big enough that it didn't have to worry about having lost 40 percent of its audience in the last two decades, the failure to reach a larger audience still would be a crime. It has a bigger role to play than it has been content with. The organization, musicians in particular, must believe that in its bones. Many will, if new artistic directions are undertaken for artistic reasons first.

When, for instance, the orchestra plays Vienna waltzes with lightweight conductors, they phone it in. But after Simon Rattle explains exactly how the afterbeats in a Vienna waltz fall - one a little early, the next a little late - the ensemble comes to life. Audiences sense it.

One major idea in the new plan is surrounding orchestra concerts with extras - videos, dance, visuals. But "innovations" in concert formats can get the upper hand. "Video Games Live" seemed a logical way to reach young listeners, to introduce them to an orchestra while watching Pokémon and Zelda. But on a recent visit here, the concept sometimes reduced a freelance orchestra to visual prop. Ironic, that.

Pop singers are mentioned in the strategic plan. This is another mirage. The orchestra recently learned that to perform with some pop stars is to not perform at all. When Aretha Franklin played the Mann last summer, she mangled the name of the orchestra and said she'd never sung with them before (untrue). Even more humiliating was when Franklin insisted on using an orchestral recording while the "Philadelphia Symphony" sat on stage with instruments silent.

It was only a moment of marginalization, but an eerily emblematic one. Repackaging the orchestra, partnering with other organizations, and augmenting music with multimedia elements can be an entry point. But unless every encounter with the orchestra somehow deepens the connection with the art form, its leadership shouldn't fool itself: The extras will become the real draw, and the next few years will be about listening to the Philadelphia Sound slowly fade away.

Some Artistic Proposals

The Philadelphia Orchestra's new strategic plan is vague in its discussion of artistic initiatives, but includes some projects in the planning stage for future seasons.

They include:

A biennial Academy of Music week to "tap into Stokowski's legacy by experimenting with theatrical lighting, stage settings and programming mix."

Semi-staged opera at the Kimmel Center or Academy of Music, perhaps in collaboration with the Opera Company of Philadelphia. "We may experiment with operas by great symphonic composers, such as Beethoven's Fidelio."

New interdisciplinary projects, perhaps in collaboration with the Philadelphia Museum of Art or other groups.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin projects, such as partnering with a "modern cirque company to create a 21st century Rite of Spring"; using a large video screen on Broad Street to create a "Times Square phenomenon"; and creating "unique settings" for concerts, "including different venues and different times, such as a 'POA After Hours' " event that begins at 10:30 p.m.

Commissioning new works, perhaps from composer Tan Dun, if the orchestra's much-hoped-for residencies in China come to fruition.

A repertoire shift to explore light classical, baroque, Broadway, film scores, and "other pop genres."

Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or Read his blog at

comments powered by Disqus