Hidden from small

Past as Present: The Philadelphia Orchestra Announces a Season-long Focus on Equality, Justice, and Magnificent Music

March 07, 2019

Music communicates and unifies. And its non-verbal elements can transform us in ways that are difficult to articulate. As The Philadelphia Orchestra embarks on its 2019-20 season, this transformative aspect stands at the forefront—with a celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth (in 2020); a forthright commitment to women composers, conductors, and soloists; a reenergized devotion to reaching all of Philadelphia’s citizens while addressing issues of inequality and social justice; and an array of large works including three operas, a “live” classic film, and Bach’s B-minor Mass.

The Orchestra celebrates Beethoven’s 250th birthday during the 2019-20 season by performing the complete symphonies and piano concertos, along with the Violin Concerto.

“Our goal is to emphasize the transformational and communicative aspects of music, and especially the joy,” says Matías Tarnopolsky, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s President and CEO. These words echoed Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s recent comments on his mission in Philadelphia: “to connect to the city … and to destroy the myth that ‘opera or classical music is for someone else, that it’s not for me.’”

Beethoven’s 250th birthday is itself ample cause for celebration, but today it is of equal importance to ponder not just how the composer’s music has impacted us, but also the ways in which our own world-view has altered how we hear his music. “It’s really a moment for us to think about what Beethoven’s music means to us today, and how we connect it to the world around us,” Tarnopolsky says.

To this end, in addition to presenting all nine of the composer’s symphonies in four consecutive subscription weeks, the Orchestra has commissioned new works as “responses” to Beethoven, to be presented alongside the symphonies. Orchestra Composer-in-Residence Gabriela Lena Frank, who as a member of the hearing-impaired community holds a deep understanding of Beethoven’s deafness, is creating a new work for the final program, which includes the First and Ninth symphonies, the latter with its declaration of the unity of all humanity under the “wings of joy.”

Yannick and the Orchestra. Photo by Jessica Griffin

Three Fellows from Frank’s prestigious Creative Academy of Music—Carlos Simon, Jessica Hunt, and Iman Habibi—are writing new works to be performed during the other Beethoven symphony programs. Juxtaposition of old and new can be critical to our understanding of the canon, Tarnopolsky says. The Beethoven celebration also comprises performances of the complete piano concertos and the Violin Concerto. Additionally, Philadelphia is to be one of only two orchestras to present the composer’s complete symphonies in Carnegie Hall as part of its Beethoven celebration.

Of equal note for the 2019-20 season is the unprecedented bounty of music by women, which in addition to that of Frank and Hunt also includes works by Valerie Coleman, Lera Auerbach, Betsy Jolas, Lili Boulanger, Zosha Di Castri, and Anna Clyne.

“Every Philadelphia Orchestra season should be representative of the diverse, global communities that we serve,” Nézet-Séguin. “I am delighted to be able to commission both emerging and established women artists to give their music the exposure it deserves, to breathe new life into what we do on stage, and to inspire members of our audience to always see a place for themselves in our work.”

Composer-in-Residence Gabriela Lena Frank has been commissioned to compose a piece to accompany Beethoven’s First and Ninth symphonies. Three Fellows from her Creative Academy of Music are writing new works to be performed during the other Beethoven symphony programs. Photo by Maria Tauger

The Orchestra has not simply relegated the works by women to concert-openers: In February, Nézet-Séguin leads the Symphony No. 2 by Parisian-born Louise Farrenc, one of the 19th century’s most significant composers. “Unlike composers such as Fanny Mendelssohn or Clara Schumann,” Tarnopolsky said, “whose music is obscured by their more famous brothers or husbands, Louise Farrenc stands on her own. But her music is only recently being rediscovered.”

More than half of the guest conductors for the season are women, including Nathalie Stutzmann, Susanna Mälkki, Karina Canellakis (making her debut), Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, and Jane Glover. Among the soloists are pianists Hélène Grimaud, Lise de la Salle, and Yuja Wang, and vocalists Christine Goerke and Angel Blue.

“Almost every woman that we have on the season was involved in a ‘first’ in some way,” said Jeremy Rothman, vice president for artistic planning. The Baltimore Symphony’s Marin Alsop, for example, broke the ultimate “glass ceiling” in 2007 by becoming the first female music director of a major American orchestra. Among the composers, Raminta Šerkšnytė is one of the first Lithuanian women to have achieved international renown, and Elena Firsova—blacklisted by the Soviets—has emerged as a major force (and rare female voice) in Russian music.

Soprano Annie Krull, right, was the Elektra in the world premiere performances of the opera, at Dresden’s Hofoper in 1909. Contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink was Klytämnestra. Yannick conducts the work with the Orchestra and Christine Goerke in the title role in May 2020.

Moreover, John Adams has taken on a courageous sequel to Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral chestnut, which he calls Scheherazade.2: Dramatic Symphony for Violin and Orchestra, featuring Leila Josefowicz. Adams has said that the impetus for the work came from an exhibition detailing the history of the Arabian Nights and of Scheherazade and how this story has evolved over the centuries. “The casual brutality toward women that lies at the base of many of these tales prodded me to think about the many images of women oppressed or abused or violated that we see today in the news on a daily basis.” In contrast to Rimsky-Korsakov’s telling, Adams “presents the female character in a much different role of leadership and heroism.”

During the 2019-20 season the Orchestra will also strengthen and expand its commitment to film music with a presentation of the movie An American in Paris while the Orchestra plays the soundtrack and a performance of excerpts from John Williams’s scores to the numerous Harry Potter films, both on subscription concerts. In addition, The Philadelphia Orchestra will present a concert by the Montreal-based Orchestre Métropolitain, of which Yannick has served as artistic director and principal conductor since 2000; powerhouse mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato joins them.

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s commitment to performing in and among the communities of Philadelphia is greater today that at any time in its 119-year history. The Orchestra will continue its series of Neighborhood Chamber Concerts, which have taken place at such venues as St. Thomas Aquinas, Esperanza Academy, Historic Strawberry Mansion, and Penn Treaty Park.

As part of its ongoing work to deepen musical and artistic ties to all Philadelphians, the Orchestra will broaden its education initiatives by placing community programs throughout the entire season, supporting and expanding its highly successful HEAR initiative. “Events like these beautifully exemplify the heart of our mission to share the enriching power of music,” Tarnopolsky said. “Yannick, the musicians, and our staff and Board are committed to engaging with the diverse communities of Philadelphia. The experiences we create and the connections we make build the foundation for a lifelong love of music.”

Stéphane Denève returns for his final season as the Orchestra’s principal guest conductor, leading such diverse works as Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges, selections by John Williams from the Harry Potter films, Stravinsky’s The Firebird, and Lera Auerbach’s Icarus. Photo by Jessica Griffin

The season-long focus on justice and equality extends to the Orchestra’s large-scale presentations as well. Nézet-Séguin heads an all-star cast in a symphonic staging of Richard Strauss’s opera Elektra, a story about a woman struggling under the potent leadership of her father. Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (in abridged form) tells of a woman trying to free herself from controlling and often abusive men. And we sometimes forget that Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges owes much of its impact to the enchanting libretto by the great female poet Colette.

If there is an overarching goal for the Orchestra’s new season, it is to continue in its forward charge toward becoming one of the most vital, vibrant arts organizations in the world. In coming seasons Tarnopolsky wants the Orchestra to shoulder its role as what he calls “a convener”—an organization that brings together segments of the community, institutions large and small, and ideas. “We are acknowledging several things this season, he said, “among them the lack of representation of women artists in our history and our present. But we are also setting the stage for the future.”

Paul J. Horsley is performing arts editor of the Independent in Kansas City and writes for several publications nationwide. During the 1990s he was program annotator and musicologist for The Philadelphia Orchestra and subsequently served as music and dance critic for the Kansas City Star.