Philadelphia cultural scene shares N.Y.'s spotlight

©PETRA STADLER.com / Decca
©PETRA STADLER.com / Decca (©PETRA STADLER.com / Decca)
Posted: January 11, 2013

Carnegie Hall advertisements are likely to prompt deja-vu echoes among Philadelphia concertgoers: Didn't we just hear that concert here? For a lot less money? Same thing when Nonesuch releases pianist Jeremy Denk's recording of the Goldberg Variations in the coming months. Wasn't he recently playing them here?

Though Philadelphia is a significant destination for classical performers, there's no getting around its proximity to New York City - or how much the two cities feed off each other culturally. Not only do artists give their programs an outing in Philadelphia's neighborhood before braving Carnegie Hall audiences, they're also happy to perform here because it doesn't require a plane trip to get to New York.

How else does one explain the world's hottest opera tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, singing the demanding Schubert song cycle Die schöne Müllerin at Princeton's McCarter Theater on Jan. 17?

"When somebody like Jonas is in rehearsal at the Met [where he opens in Parsifal Feb. 15] he can just jump in a car, sing here, and be back in bed in time to watch Jon Stewart," said Bill Lockwood, McCarter's director of special projects. Plus, Kaufmann will be that much better prepared for his Jan. 20 Montreal recital.

The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society also looks like a runway to New York, and without the sticker shock. When mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe sings an adventurous program March 5 at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater, the top ticket price is $24. On March 11 at Carnegie Hall, for the same concert, it's $95.

"I think everybody wins in these situations," says cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who has warmed up a Carnegie program at Elkins Park's Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. "We get to try new things - I'm always experimenting with new sound worlds - and a different audience gets to hear us. And the more performing experience you have, the better."

All concerts are tryouts in a way, says Weilerstein. But some are more crucial than others, notes pianist Jeremy Denk.

"You hate to play anywhere when you're less than your best . . . but there are limits to what you can learn in the practice room," says Denk, who has tried out much repertoire in Philadelphia venues. "So often, a piece might at first seem to be impossible, and you're beating your head against the wall. And then it is possible. You never know which performance is the one that's going to help you change from one state to another."

Musical difficulty isn't the issue with the early-music vocal quartet Anonymous 4, which usually tries out programs in a cozy church in Nyack, N.Y., but because of scheduling had to sing its December program here for the first time. "With medieval music, you're dealing with a lot of short pieces that make a huge difference if the flow is going to work for the performers or the audience," says group member Marsha Genensky. "Maybe the first half has too much fast-moving stuff. And do the individual members have enough rest in the right places?"

So high did Princeton loom in Kaufmann's mind that when Lockwood saw the tenor at a New York event a year ago and said something about being thrilled to host him at McCarter, he replied, "Yes! Jan. 17."

"How many artists know an exact date almost a year in advance?" Lockwood asks. "I was impressed."

"You are playing in great places," says Weilerstein of her favorite tryout venues, "and often those audiences are the best."

Not that New Yorkers are more discriminating or dismissive; more likely, they're over-stimulated. Being better prepared isn't necessarily insurance against that, but at least the Philadelphia tryout lends an extra ounce of security. Says Denk, "We shouldn't always be making music with terror in our hearts."

Yet there are times when the migration is reversed: The Philadelphia date follows New York. One such instance is a high-profile vocal concert presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, a Feb. 5 dual recital with Ian Bostridge and Angelika Kirchschlager at the Perelman Theater.

"With rare exceptions, most artists won't take a New York date only," says Anthony Checchia, founder and artistic director of the PCMS.

Thus emerges a chicken-and-egg question: For European artists, is a New York performance possible because they can also have dates in Philadelphia, Washington, or Boston? That may be the case with the ambitious Kirchschlager/Bostridge concert: They're singing excerpts from Hugo Wolf's great but dense Spanisches Liederbuch.

"There aren't too many places that book that," Checchia says. "Presenters will want those singers, but not that program."

The most basic factor in this musical nexus may well be the most mundane: Bricks and mortar. PCMS was initially made possible in 1986 by the auditorium at Independence Seaport Museum (then the Port of History Museum), since other Philadelphia venues were too small or too busy.

Now, PCMS has other options - Kimmel, the American Philosophical Society, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Curtis Institute - allowing the kind of scheduling flexibility that artist managers love.

McCarter, which also has a full season of theater, is busier than those venues but offers artists such as Kaufmann a rare chance to perform in a mid-size venue - 1,100 seats, in contrast to the Met's 3,800. Also, fans have a chance to hear him much closer to home - for tickets ranging from $6 to $68 (compared to the Met's $30 to $360).

The even-lower PCMS ticket prices are considered something of a miracle within the industry. Certainly, Checchia has a lower overhead than Carnegie Hall. But he also has a strategy to sell more tickets for less money, allowing concertgoers to take a chance on the Spanisches Liederbuch for $24 that they might not for $50.

"Selling in volume," he says, with plainspoken understatement, "is important to us."


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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