The Philadelphia Orchestra’s first European tour under Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin is a smashing success. Critics and audiences alike in Luxembourg, Cologne, Dresden, Berlin, and Dortmund have been reveling in the Philadelphians’ legendary sound and electric performing style. And there’s more to come in Lyon, Paris, Vienna, and Amsterdam before they wrap up in London in June.
But this trip is more than an artistic triumph. In addition to creating the sublime music for which it is justly famous, the Orchestra is also helping to carry the banner for its home city and state, working to promote the economic health of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
"We are honored to continue the longstanding tradition of partnership between The Philadelphia Orchestra and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and to serve as conveners of collaboration with the City of Philadelphia and its top civic, tourism, and cultural organizations,” says Philadelphia Orchestra President and CEO Allison Vulgamore. “In addition to bringing the great language of music to European audiences we will demonstrate the best that our city and state has to offer the world.”
Orchestra Vice President for Global Initiatives and Government Relations Craig Hamilton notes that the Commonwealth has recognized the benefits of Philadelphia as a brand for years, and the Orchestra is perhaps the best example of that brand. “They’ve been very supportive of us, and we’ve always entertained potential clients in the countries we visit,” thanks to Pennsylvania’s strong roster of trade and investment offices around the world. “But this is the first time they’ve actually come with us from Harrisburg to do a trade mission around the Orchestra’s tour.” That’s meant, in many of the tour cities, a session on the hottest economic topic in a particular country; a reception; the concert; and a backstage meet and greet for local civic, cultural, and government leaders.
“The last time I was in Europe with the Orchestra, in 2011, working with a local Commonwealth of Pennsylvania office,” says Hamilton, “it was the first time I really saw the power of the Orchestra in this regard. I was talking with a businessman, who was trying to decide where to invest in a dairy farm, and it was down to two places: a mid-western state and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He asked a lot of questions about Philadelphia: restaurants, the art scene, and of course the Orchestra. I realized he was trying to figure out what the quality of life would be like for several hundred people he was going to ask to pick up and move to the States. He took our conversation very seriously. Did he decide on Lancaster solely because the Orchestra is nearby? I don’t think so. Did it help? I like to think so!”
Friday’s appearance in Lyon features a lineup that’s been dazzling audiences across the continent (and in Philadelphia and New York before the tour began): Nico Muhly’s Mixed Messages in its French premiere; Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with the unmatched keyboard mastery of Emanuel Ax; and the Rachmaninoff Third Symphony, one of many pieces created expressly for the Orchestra.
The musicians are also doing a side-by-side performance with members of the Orchestre National de Lyon. But non-musical events in Lyon are important in their own right. A few years ago, Hamilton explains, then-governor Tom Corbett asked the Orchestra if they’d consider putting Lyon on their next European tour. It’s the capital of the Rhône-Alpes region, the sixth-largest economy in all of Europe. The Commonwealth has a sister-region relationship with Rhône-Alpes and wanted to strengthen it. “We said yes. We’ve never announced a location that far out, we hadn’t even announced the European tour yet!” So Pennsylvania is promoting its economic advantages to Rhône-Alpes during the visit; at the same time, Philadelphia’s leading civic, cultural, business, and tourism organizations will tout the city’s business and cultural riches in conjunction with the Orchestra’s appearances.
The tour wraps up in London on June 5 and 6, adding Lisa Batiashvili’s brilliant rendition of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 to the mix, plus Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Once again, there are prominent events outside the concert hall, including community activities in London’s East End, an economically emerging area that was home to the 2012 Olympics. Business leaders from both sides of the pond will tour East London; Hamilton says Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts is a good model for what could happen in the British capital.
So what’s next for this powerful combination of high art and civic pride? Hamilton says he’s not at liberty to talk about all of the Orchestra’s global ambitions. “But I will say I just had several good days in Washington, D.C., with the State Department and some of our legislators, and there is interest in working with The Philadelphia Orchestra as cultural ambassadors.”
If this European tour is any indication, that sounds like the making of a diplomatic triumph.