by Michael Caruso
Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts has maintained its mission to invest new life into the traditional musical art form of opera by training talented young singers to perform at the world’s greatest opera houses. AVA has been living up to its promise since it was founded in 1935.
The all-scholarship school will celebrate the 85th anniversary of that founding with “BrAVA Philadelphia!” Saturday, March 28, the gala fundraising concert held every five years. This time around, however, the celebration will be even more special than usual. It’s set to take place at the newly renovated Met Philadelphia.
Located at Broad & Poplar Sts., the Met Philadelphia was built more than a century ago as a North Broad St. rival to the South Broad St. Academy of Music at Locust. With more than an additional 500 seats, it played host to performances by such operatic legends as Enrico Caruso and Rosa Ponselle plus the 20th century’s most influential conductor, Arturo Toscanini. “BrAVA Philadelphia!” will mark the first time in more than 80 years that operatic music has been performed on the Met Philadelphia’s stage.
Classical music, however, has not been absent from the Met Philadelphia in all those years. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s former music director, Riccardo Muti, led the ensemble there in recording sessions during the 1980s for EMI/Angel once he had succeeded Eugene Ormandy. I attended several of those sessions and recall a splendid acoustical aura about the place.
Speaking about the concert, East Falls’ K. James McDowell, AVA’s president & artistic director, said, “’BrAVA Philadelphia!’ has been performed every five years by AVA since 1995, and is a celebration of not only AVA, but also the city that it has called home for over eight decades. AVA honors Philadelphia and individuals who have helped shape the city’s arts and cultural community.
“For the past 85 years,” he continued, “AVA has shaped the future of opera, and with ‘BrAVA Philadelphia!’ we acknowledge our many singers who are performing at the world’s major opera houses, and continue to build towards our future.”
AVA vice president & general manager Scott Guzielek added, “It’s amazing really that here on our little campus in center city Philadelphia we’ve been training singers who perform in all the major opera houses of the world and we’ve been doing it for 85 years.”
Guzielek pointed to the particular importance of performing this year’s celebration at the Met Philadelphia, marking several individuals for special notice for having saved the opera house. These include the Rev. Mark Hatcher, whose congregation owns the building, developer Eric Blumenfeld, and Geoffrey Gordon of Live Nation.
“Along with several others,” Guzielek said, “they’re responsible for having saved the Met Philadelphia from demolition. They’re behind its restoration into one of the city’s major performing arts venues.”
AVA plans to sell approximately 2,000 seats, not using the upper level or the back rows of the orchestra section.
“We have only 130 seats available in our own Warden Theater,” Guzielek said, “so this concert will give many more opera lovers the chance to experience the Academy of Vocal Arts.”
For more ticket information, call 1-800-745-3000. For information about AVA’s season of opera productions, call 215-735-1685 or visit avaopera.org. AVA will present a fully staged production of Gaetano Donizetti’s “La favorite” in the original French-language version Feb. 15, 18, 20 & 22 at 7:30 p.m. in its Warden Theater, 1920 Spruce St., Philadelphia. Germantown’s Richard Raub will conduct.
ORGAN & TRUMPETS
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Locust Street, was the site of a most unusual recital Sunday afternoon, Jan. 19. Parish music director Robert McCormick was joined by Philadelphia Orchestra principal trumpeter and parishioner David Bilger and seven of his students at the Curtis Institute of Music for a program of music that showcased the brass choir’s most brilliant member and the newly restored Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ at the church. The recital drew an audience of a good 300 music lovers.
The concert’s first half featured music from the Baroque era of the 17th & 18th centuries while its second half focused on music composed during the 20th and early 21st centuries. Scores by Zelenka, Pezel, Vivaldi/Bach, Albinoni, Torelli and Scheidt displayed the beginnings of the trumpet’s virtuoso traditions with superb support from McCormick at the pipe organ. Works by Ewazen, Eben and Langlais revealed its entry into more modern styles.
The organ as a solo instrument was featured in the “Choral” movement of Vierne’s “Deuxieme symphonie.” The instrument’s countless colors, textures and dynamics were exhibited by McCormick in playing of technical wizardry and superb musicianship.