by Michael Caruso

In response to a growing need among Greater Philadelphia’s young musicians, Settlement Music School is launching a junior string orchestra program that will be centered at the school’s Germantown Branch, 6128 Germantown Ave. The junior orchestra is intended to counterbalance the trend to eliminate music and arts classes in elementary and middle schools throughout the entire region. Not only public schools, but many private, parochial and charter schools, as well, are cutting back on arts programs to alleviate budgetary stress.

CHESTNUT HILL MUMMERS: Some members of the Venetian Club’s comic brigade rehearsing for this year’s Mummers Parade are, from left, MaryAnn Patek, Bonnie Brooks and Margie Lewis, Their theme this year’s is “Flash Mobsters.” This is the Venetian Club’s 8th year in the Mummers Parade. They have finished as high as second place twice. (Photo by Jim Harris)

The new program is for students in grades three through eight. Auditions can be scheduled between 5 and 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 3. The ensemble will meet for rehearsals Tuesdays, 6 to 7 p.m., for 18 weeks. Membership in the orchestra is open to both Settlement Music School students and non-Settlement students. The new orchestra will be directed by Kaveh Saidi, a member of Settlement’s faculty.

For more information, contact Emily Grusky at 215-320-2610 or egrusky@smsmusic.org.

HOLIDAY TREATS

The Philadelphia Orchestra brought the holiday season and calendar year to a close with a series of concerts and the release of a compact disc. Music director-designate Yannick Nezt-Seguin conducted the final series of subscription concerts in Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall Dec. 8-11. The program consisted of Jennifer Higdon’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for Piano & Orchestra” and Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 2 in C minor.” These works were followed by a trio of renditions given to “The Glorious Sound of Christmas” Dec. 15-17, conducted by the orchestra’s former associate conductor, Rossen Milanov.

The final installment of the season was the Dec. 18 rendition of Handel’s “Messiah,” conducted by Jane Glover and featuring vocal soloists plus the Philadelphia Singers Chorale. In addition, the orchestra has released its first CD featuring Nezet-Seguin on the podium — Mahler’s “Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor,” recorded “live” in concert in Verizon Hall Oct. 31, 2010. The   Higdon/Rachmaninoff/Tchaikovsky concert had both good and not-so-good aspects. The best was certainly the rendition given the Tchaikovsky symphony. Nezet-Seguin focused on the long romantic line of the music in all four of its movements, projecting the inner emotional character of each and voicing the contrapuntal textures to highlight the music’s peerless lyricism.

Nezet-Seguin invested his interpretation with high energy without pushing the playing beyond the limits of solid ensemble. Memorably, the Philadelphians sounded like themselves many years ago when Eugene Ormandy was their music director and they were considered the “Rolls Royce of Orchestras.”

Yuja Wang was the soloist in Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” The score was premiered Nov. 7, 1934, in Baltimore with the composer as the soloist and Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. If Nezet-Seguin didn’t quite match up with the legendary Stoki, at least he was in the same ballpark. The same cannot be said of Wang when compared to Rachmaninoff, recently named the greatest recorded pianist of all time by 100 current keyboard virtuosos. Despite the score’s delicate orchestration and Nezet-Seguin’s sensitive collaboration, Wang was simply incapable — with a few exceptions —  of producing a tone that was either full and colorful enough or bright and forceful enough.

This was my second time hearing Higdon’s “Concerto for Orchestra.” I must confess that I enjoyed and admired it far more that first time around in 2002 under Wolfgang Sawallisch’s baton than I did Dec. 10. This time its sonic effects seemed bereft of substantial structural grounding — interesting upon first encounter but not particularly meaningful upon consideration. Also, the concert lasted well beyond the two-hour time slot usually allotted for classical programs. Nezet-Seguin seems unable or unwilling to arrange concise concerts.

The program for “The Glorious Sounds of Christmas” is based on one of the four albums for which Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra were awarded a Gold Record by Columbia Masterworks, meaning that more than 100,000 copies were sold. In a telling sign of the changing times, the ensemble nowadays would be thrilled to sell one-tenth that many CDs.

All the same, the recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with Nezet-Seguin conducting is unquestionably a harbinger of good things to come. Once again, the young maestro catches the mind, heart, spirit and soul of the music and elicits excellent playing from the orchestra. With Verizon Hall’s acoustics continuing to be tweaked and improved, local audiences can hopefully look forward to more CDs to come.