Violinist Mutter headlines orchestra gala

Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, with music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, performs Tchaikovsky at the gala opening of Philadelphia Orchestra's 114th season.
Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, with music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, performs Tchaikovsky at the gala opening of Philadelphia Orchestra's 114th season. (Philadelphia Orchestra)
Posted: September 27, 2013

Gala openings of the Philadelphia Orchestra are meant to be comfortably glamorous - as opposed to recklessly adventurous. Yet the Kimmel Center audience got both Wednesday - embodied in the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter - for fund-raising ticket prices as high as $15,000.

"Opening-night audience is a little different," said Katherine Blodgett, the orchestra's vice president of communications. "I'm seeing ... a lot of people who support the cultural community at large, as well as those who specifically support the orchestra."

And one of those was Mutter. The 50-year-old German violinist - appearing in her trademark strapless evening gown - gave back a substantial percentage of her usual fee to the orchestra. And, having been at the top of her profession for 30 years, she would also seem to have earned the right to reimagine the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto exactly the way she wanted.

Bold, strange, perverse, and extreme are all words that were applicable to the way she played one phrase full out, the next one barely audible, changing speeds almost as frequently, playing staccato one minute and ultrasmooth the next - all geared to achieve maximum contrast in every way.

Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin stuck to her like glue, his eyes intensely trained on her, though often darting back to the score in front of him. Such an interpretive approach was popular in the late 19th century, largely died out in the 20th, and is still considered perverse in the 21st. Had anybody, onstage or in the auditorium, heard anything at all like it? Probably not. If only because she commands the violin as few do, the audience cheered.

In at least one way, the all-Tchaikovsky program was not bound to be controversial: On Monday in New York City, the Metropolitan Opera opened its season with the composer's Eugene Onegin, only to find it an occasion for protesters from the gay group Queer Nation calling attention to recent antigay legislation passed in Russia. (Tchaikovsky was gay.)

No such thing happened Wednesday, as klieg lights were set up on Broad Street and the orchestra made its way through Tchaikovsky's Fantasy-Overture Romeo and Juliet inside with Nézet-Séguin showing no signs of slacking off due to the abbreviated, fund-raising nature of the program.

Spokespeople declined to estimate how much the orchestra gained from the benefit, which also included the newly instituted Young Friends of Opening Night social group. Speakers included Mayor Nutter; orchestra president Allison Vulgamore; and Carole Haas Gravagno, a philanthropist who was given the Philadelphia Orchestra Award in recognition of her longtime support.

A beloved, down-to-earth presence who knows many of the players personally, Haas Gravagno issued a challenge to the arts community: "It takes all of us to make it happen. It's up to us to keep the orchestra as the centerpiece of our community."

The orchestra is beginning its second season with Nézet-Séguin on the upswing. His first commercial recording with the orchestra on the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label - Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring - was just released and is receiving good reviews. The regular season starts Thursday.

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