Orchestra reaches out

Posted: October 16, 2012

The Philadelphia Orchestra had a lovely Ingmar Bergman moment Saturday night.

Verizon Hall was filled with the most representative-of-the-city audience you could hope to see at an orchestra concert. Asian American fathers lent laps and shoulders to children two or three deep. Chic Center City couples made it a date night. College students and seniors rubbed elbows in the third tier. If a camera had panned across the crowd, it might have captured an undeclared contest to see who could smile the widest at 12-year-old Alexander Liu's remarkably assured performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1, first movement.

In his film version of The Magic Flute, Bergman cut from face to face in the audience during the overture - little girl, old woman, dark-skinned man. Pauline Kael, in her Nov. 17, 1975, New Yorker review of the film, sneered.

"The faces tell us that people of all ages, colors and creeds enjoy Mozart; it's fiercely banal," she wrote before singling out that "princessy little girl, whom one wants to strangle." Critics. Whatever cinematic concerns Kael was working out, the basic conceit of Bergman's focus on the audience has only intensified in our time. If the Philadelphia Orchestra is going to succeed in winning listeners beyond the known loyalists, it will do so on nights like this. In the air was the tingle that it did.

Saturday's concert was free, in itself an interesting exercise in suggesting who wants to hear the orchestra but perhaps can't afford it. Billed as a season preview in an e-mail blast to a list of 100,000, the concert intended to make connections between particular pieces and programming for the rest of the season. Response to the e-mail was so great that the orchestra had to stop taking reservations at 4,000, which, minus the inevitable no-shows, filled 2,200-seat Verizon nicely.

The orchestra also sent out some mixed signals. Cristian Macelaru led the concert, meant to drum up interest in Yannick Nézet-Séguin's inaugural season as music director. Though the orchestra made it clear in advance who would be conducting, two women standing behind me at intermission said they had shown up expecting to see the incoming Montrealer.

Sometimes, lines were clearly drawn to the season (which opens officially Thursday) - Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," for instance, to point to the 200th anniversary of Wagner's birth and a related program later. Less convincing was performing Les préludes by Liszt because the composer was Wagner's father-in-law.

Macelaru carries a heavy workload as assistant conductor, and sometimes turns in perfunctory interpretations. His leadership in the Stokowski arrangement of Bach's "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" was unfocused, suggestive of no particular point about Bach or awareness of the special orchestral colors layered upon it.

But the goal of this event, which the orchestra claimed was the first such season preview in its 112 years, was worthy: to signal to listeners that a friendly curatorial hand wants their business. Harold Robinson and his big double bass mingled in the lobby during intermission, and subscriptions were offered. A brochure selling a four-concert series was stuffed into program booklets. Ticket sales of about $7,300 for future concerts were rung up, a spokeswoman said.

The diversity was impressive for altruistic reasons, but there was also something more strategic at work. In a city like Philadelphia, doesn't it make sense to mine rich veins of African Americans, Mexicans, Vietnamese, Koreans, and others? Many of these communities harbor the same musical ambitions for their children that German, Italian, and Jewish immigrants brought to this country a century ago. Young adults and their children represent continuity and growth.

On Thursday, Asians and Asian Americans might have accounted for half the hall as the orchestra threw open its doors for a free College Night. Stereotypes of students didn't fly here; Burberry plaids and Cole Haan shoes edged out jeans and flip-flops. Audience reaction suggested this wasn't a first classical encounter for many.

For the college crowd, the orchestra offered up one of their own, or nearly so. Carol Jantsch, the orchestra's youngest member at 27, appropriated a movement from Saint-Saëns' Cello Concerto No. 1 for her own instrument, the tuba. I hope it spoke to the audience on a gee-whiz, how-does-she-do-that-on-tuba? level, since, as a convincing transcription, it left a lot to be desired.

Coveting the youth vote is nothing new. The orchestra has been courting it for decades, with Halloween and Valentine's Day concerts (now defunct), a club for 25- to 45-year-olds (ClassiX Live, from the early 1990s, also defunct), and experiments with concert formats. Inexplicably, these efforts were not sustained. But one program for college students - eZseatU, $25 a year for an unlimited number of concerts - is successfully turning some "graduates" into subscribers. It will be continued. Thirty-two memberships were sold at Thursday's concert.

Since Stokowski, this ensemble has been adept at programming for children. Older listeners are stalwarts and good at remembering the orchestra in their wills. Now, with two concerts in the last week, it seems the orchestra has succeeded in capturing face time during that important stretch between the cradle and the grave.

Contact Peter Dobrin at pdobrin@phillynews.com or 215-854-5611. Read his blog at www.philly.com/artswatch.

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