Struck in N.Y., Phila. Orchestra pulls off a concert anyhow

Guest conductor Madeline Church, 9, with help from Yannick Nézet-Séguin, finishes the "William Tell Overture." DAVID SWANSON / Staff
Guest conductor Madeline Church, 9, with help from Yannick Nézet-Séguin, finishes the "William Tell Overture." DAVID SWANSON / Staff (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 04, 2013

The New Yorkers struck, but the Philadelphians stuck.

Stuck to their hometown fans, that is. Unable to perform at Wednesday night's Carnegie Hall season-opening gala after stagehands went on strike, the Philadelphia Orchestra responded with a bold Plan B, putting on an abbreviated concert back home in Verizon Hall.

The doors of the Kimmel Center were thrown open Wednesday at 6 p.m. and, to a crowd of about 2,500, the orchestra played a no-intermission 90 minutes of Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and Ravel.

Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin traded his usual concert garb for a royal blue v-neck sweater, and told the audience that when the Carnegie concert was scratched, the orchestra considered staying home and watching TV. "But we are musicians . . . and what we like to do on our night off is play music."

An orchestra spokeswoman declined to make Nézet-Séguin available for an interview.

Word of the concert spread throughout the day after being announced in late morning. "I just think this is awesome, this is the kind of thing they do in Philly," said Sandra Ackler of Center City, who heard of the concert on the radio and brought along a South Philadelphia friend who had never been to Verizon Hall.

It was, she said, slightly reminiscent of another orchestra gift to its listeners that she wished she had attended - an evening in 1994 when members of the orchestra were snowed in, and the public was invited in to hear music director Wolfgang Sawallisch take a spin through knotty Wagner scores alone, accompanying singers from the keyboard.

Carnegie Hall stagehands struck Wednesday morning over a jurisdiction issue, not only depriving New Yorkers of a chance to hear the orchestra in Tchaikovsky, Ravel, and Saint-Saëns, but also keeping the ensemble from impressing gala cochairs such as philanthropists Mercedes T. Bass and Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis. Violinist Joshua Bell and double-bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding were to have been guest soloists.

After 13 months of talks, and "after no significant progress, we found it absolutely necessary to take action to protect the members that we represent," said James J. Claffey Jr., president of Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, in a statement.

In statements regarding the labor dispute, both the union and Carnegie Hall management cited differences over union work in the hall's newly created education wing. "We are disappointed that, despite the fact that the stagehands have one of the most lucrative contracts in the industry, they are now seeking to expand their jurisdiction beyond the concert hall and into the new Education Wing in ways that would compromise Carnegie Hall's education mission," said Clive Gillinson, Carnegie's executive and artistic director.

New York's loss was Philadelphia's gain. The orchestra organized a conducting competition in the lobby before the concert, with would-be podium-hoppers lining up to lead a string ensemble in an excerpt from Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik.

A near-toddler tried out, his hands guided by orchestra associate conductor Cristian Macelaru. For this half-hour, the orchestra's podium saw more diversity than in its entire history: women, African American men and women, Asians, the very young.

One contestant was slow.

The next slower. The next slower still.

Until a young man came along who had clearly studied under the baton of Bugs Bunny, so comedically balletic was he.

But the winner was Madeline Church, 9, who said that what she liked about conducting was being able to wave her hands and have a whole lot of people playing instruments do what she wanted. And so it was: Her prize was coming up to the podium during the concert itself (after being coached a bit backstage) to conduct an excerpt from the William Tell Overture.

Clearly, though, the idea of leading an orchestra isn't for everyone.

Richard Worley said he briefly considered entering the conducting competition, but for now he'll have to be content with his day job: the orchestra's chairman of the board.

He said that when he "saw there were some people who knew what they were doing," he thought better of it.


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