The way to have good ideas, as Nobel Prize-winning scientist Linus Pauling used to say, is to have lots of ideas. In recent years The Philadelphia Orchestra has dramatically increased the range and scope of its activities both locally and globally, and the 2017-18 season just announced underscores an ever-expanding breadth of vision that reflects the Orchestra’s storied legacy, its ongoing commitment to deep community involvement, and its role as a global ambassador for the arts.
Photo by Jessica Griffin
The new season will feature exceptional, dynamic interpretations of music from Broadway to the Baroque, oratorio to opera, under the artistic leadership of Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who in June extended his commitment to The Philadelphia Orchestra through at least 2025-26. The 2017-18 season features significant commissions (Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Low Brass, Thomas Adès’s Suite from Powder Her Face, Tod Machover’s Philadelphia Voices, Samuel Jones’s Flute Concerto); another important chapter in the multi-season focus on the music of Haydn; and an array of residencies and community programs that span multiple years—including a concentration on opera in the concert hall. It also highlights the centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, by offering a generous portion of the American master’s music, including West Side Story in Concert.
The commemoration of the Bernstein year will begin with the suites from On the Waterfront and West Side Story, and continue with West Side Story in Concert and performances of the Serenade for violin and orchestra (featuring Hilary Hahn), the Chichester Psalms with soloists and choir, and the second in a multi-season series of Bernstein’s symphonies (the Symphony No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra, featuring Jean-Yves Thibaudet). The Family Concerts will also be devoted to the man whose dynamic Young People’s Concerts on CBS-TV ushered in a revolutionary approach to sparking youthful interest in music.
Leonard Bernstein in 1955. The Orchestra celebrates his 100th birthday in the 2017-18 season. Photo: Library of Congress
“When we performed Bernstein’s MASS two seasons ago, it was one of the most life-changing experiences, personally, for me, to get so close to Bernstein’s music,” Yannick said. “And it got me inspired to keep exploring all that he wrote for orchestra, and also his theatrical music, which is obviously so important. To be able to have the Philadelphia Sound, with a great cast of Broadway singers … to relish in that [West Side Story] score … and have it performed in a complete version by The Philadelphia Orchestra will be a very special event for our community and for me personally.”
Opera will continue to be an important part of Yannick and the Orchestra’s legacy. In May 2018 the Orchestra presents a creatively staged performance of Puccini’s Tosca featuring Metropolitan Opera stars Sonya Yoncheva, Yusif Eyvasov, and Ambrogio Maestri, and staged by James Alexander of Symphony V. Tosca is part of an ongoing series of performances (which have already included Strauss’s Salome and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle) led by Yannick, who becomes the Met’s next music director beginning with the 2020-21 season.
“To hear the Philadelphia Orchestra sound in the great operatic scores onstage in Verizon Hall is a treat,” Yannick said. “And we are committed to bringing, from time to time, these scores to life here in our hall. … Puccini has a unique and very rich way to orchestrate. … To hear the pure invention of the colors of the orchestra, influenced I would say by the French idea of writing at that time, we’ll be able to hear it with fresh ears.”
Yannick leads a cast of world-renowned singers in performances of Puccini’s Tosca.
Yannick said he is also relishing a masterwork that has been dear to his heart since he sang in it as a 10-year-old chorister: Haydn’s The Seasons, performed with top vocal soloists and the Philadelphia Symphonic Choir. “It will be the realization of long-imagined dream of mine,” Yannick said. “First, because I think this is one of his great masterpieces. He put everything he had into that score. … It has everything to do with thanking nature, thanking God for all that we see on earth … the beauty of nature, the sunset, the sunrise, the storms, the animals. It’s very descriptive music.”
Of special significance for the Orchestra’s season is Tod Machover’s Philadelphia Voices, the second in the Orchestra’s multi-season Community Commissions initiative. This program began in 2014-15 with Hannibal’s One Land, One River, One People and will continue with that same composer’s Healing Tones in 2019. Machover’s “crowd-sourced” work will involve multiple visits to schools, choirs, and local organizations—as well as social media solicitations—toward eliciting from the community a wide range of viewpoints, both musical and conceptual.
The concept was sparked, in part, by the spirit of collaboration and civic pride surrounding the visit of Pope Francis in September 2015, Yannick said. “We commissioned Tod Machover for a grand-scale piece about our city: It was, in a way, inspired by a truly magical moment where we were playing and singing, hundreds of thousands of people, on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. … And this inspired us to think about our city—as the birthplace of democracy in this country—and about involving all the voices of our community, of our young people, of the talent that we have in our schools, of the passion that we have in our patrons. It’s about the larger community getting together and truly defining our city musically, but also spiritually.”
The Orchestra performs two works by local favorite composer Jennifer Higdon: On a Wire featuring the ensemble Eighth Blackbird, and Concerto for Low Brass featuring Orchestra members Nitzan Haroz, Matthew Vaughn, Blair Bollinger, and Carol Jantsch. Photo by J.D. Scott
These Community Commissions, said Orchestra Vice President for Artistic Planning Jeremy Rothman, “represent the intersection of our community work, our Collaborative learning HEAR initiative (focusing on Health, Education, Access, and Research), and our artistic product. It demonstrates truly that what we’re doing with the City of Philadelphia is not separate from our mission and our artistry, but actually is quite key to it—in being featured in this way on our main season each year.”
The multi-year focus on music of Haydn serves as a sort of springboard to the Orchestra’s fifth annual January Winter Festival, now celebrating the music of a chosen city or region. “In January we all feel the need of getting warm in our hearts and in our ears by coming to the concerts,” Yannick said of this season’s British Isles Festival, “because we can’t be warm outside.” Having traversed St. Petersburg, Vienna, and Paris, for 2017-18 the Orchestra focuses on music of Handel, Elgar, Britten, and Maxwell Davies—and related works such as Haydn’s “London” Symphony and Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony.
The Festival also includes, as a bonus, performances of Elgar’s Piano Quintet with Yannick himself at the piano. “I’ve played this since school, and I’m an advocate and champion of that piece,” Yannick said. “So there will be, in that concert, not only me as a conductor but also as a chamber musician, and it’s a privilege of course for me to sit down and make music with my musicians that I admire so much.”
Another multi-season focus is American Sounds, aimed at presenting not just music by Americans but music that incorporates specifically American vernacular styles. Michael Tilson Thomas conducts his Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind with its use of jazz, soul, and R&B; soloist Nicola Benedetti presents Wynton Marsalis’s jazz-infused Violin Concerto; Dvořák’s “American” Suite, which incorporates American folk tunes, will be led by James Gaffigan; noted Gershwin specialist Jon Kimura Parker plays the Piano Concerto in F; and the focus on music of Bernstein will bring elements of the popular and the American songbook into the mix.
Violinist Hilary Hahn is artist-in-residence and performs multiple times during the 2017-18 season. Photo by Michael Patrick O’Leary
Hilary Hahn will appear as artist-in-residence during the season, the first in a series, presenting two subscription-concert sets; the annual free College Concert, which kicks off each season’s eZseatU program; a Family Concert; and a series of community and educational activities.
The Orchestra will continue to feature the extraordinary gifts of Stéphane Denève, who recently renewed his contract as Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Guest Conductor through the 2019-20 season (for a total of six seasons). He will conduct four subscription weeks. In addition to masterworks by Mahler, Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Strauss, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, and Strauss, Denève presents the Orchestra premiere of Higdon’s On a Wire and three works by the French composer Guillaume Connesson. Other guest conductors include Christian Măcelaru, James Gaffigan, Donald Runnicles, Christoph Eschenbach, Bramwell Tovey, Pablo Heras-Casado, Fabio Luisi, Nicholas McGegan, and making their Orchestra debuts, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and Lahav Shani.
The season also embraces a wide array of sophisticated, approachable works by living composers: In addition to the performances already mentioned, Janine Jansen presents the U.S. premiere of the Violin Concerto by Dutch composer Michel van de Aa, and Principal Trumpet David Bilger appears in Christian Lindberg’s Akbank Bunka. Moreover, the Orchestra will dig deep into the vibrant repertoire that has made it world-celebrated, including music of Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Mahler, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Schumann, Brahms, and Beethoven, as well as continue to bring audiences the unique and richly rewarding experience of “two orchestras onstage together: the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ and The Philadelphia Orchestra.”
Click here for complete details or to purchase subscriptions. Subscriptions can also be purchased by calling Ticket Philadelphia at 215-893-1955. Single tickets will go on sale at a later date.
Paul Horsley is performing arts editor of the Independent (Kansas City) and writes for several publications nationwide. During the 1990s he was program annotator and musicologist for The Philadelphia Orchestra and subsequently music and dance critic for the Kansas City Star.