Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. (Photo by Chris Lee)

by Michael Caruso

With the final series of concerts of the 2019-20 season of both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia cancelled due to coronavirus and the lockdown in place to curb its spread, local classical music lovers are left looking longingly toward the recently announced 2020-21 season of both ensembles. While the fall resumption of major public performances in large concert halls is far from certain, it remains a hope many of us do not want to abandon.

With the final series of concerts of the 2019-20 season of both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia cancelled due to coronavirus and the lockdown in place to curb its spread, local classical music lovers are left looking longingly toward the recently announced 2020-21 season of both ensembles. While the fall resumption of major public performances in large concert halls is far from certain, it remains a hope many of us do not want to abandon.

In the case of both orchestras, the new season testifies to a shared, stated goal of achieving more “diversity” and “relevance” in regard to programming, even if achieving that goal risks estranging each ensemble from the historic roots of its repertoire.

In the case of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, those repertoire-based antecedents lead back to 1964 when Marc Mostovoy founded the Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia. The date is important because it predates the nearly exclusive use nowadays of baroque and classical period instruments for performances of music composed during the later 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries.

Philadelphia’s classical music scene actually came rather late to the “Baroque Revival” that began in Europe in the 1920s with harpsichordist Wanda Landowska’s legendary performances of the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Though often considered hopelessly romantic and, therefore, un-authentic nowadays, her recordings remain powerful artistic achievements that reminded audiences of Bach’s towering genius.

  When Mostovoy founded the Concerto Soloists, his goal was to re-acquaint local classical music lovers with the foundational works of the symphonic repertoire: the concerti and suites of Bach, his contemporary George Frideric Handel, and their Italian trendsetter, Antonio Vivaldi, as well as a plethora of lesser lights.

Even after Mostovoy’s retirement and the group’s move to the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater by his successor, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, the newly minted Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia remained faithful to the baroque and classical canon as the core of its repertoire. It wasn’t until his retirement in 2010 and the start of the tenure of his successor, Dirk Brosse, that the ensemble moved more and more consistently into the programming of modern and contemporary scores, leaving lovers of baroque and classical styles nowhere to go if they wanted to hear their favorite part of the repertoire played on modern, rather than period, instruments.

The history of the Philadelphia Orchestra begins in 1900 when local classical music lovers, tired of having to travel to New York City to hear the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall, decided to found their own symphonic ensemble to perform in the Academy of Music. It developed a middling reputation under its first two music directors, Fritz Scheel and Carl Pohlig (1900-1907, 1907-12, respectively) but once Leopold Stokowski took over in 1912, the sheer strength of his personality turned it into a world-class ensemble. His successor, Eugene Ormandy, continued that tradition and expanded it into the recording era, making the “Fabulous Philadelphians” the most profitably recorded classical music ensemble in the world. Their combined directorships, from 1912 until 1980, were truly a “golden age” not unlike the contemporaneous “golden age” of the studios in Hollywood.

Successors Riccardo Muti and Wolfgang Sawallisch maintained both the Orchestra’s reputation and its basic repertoire. Difficulties arose under Christoph Eschenbach and Charles Dutoit, but the 2012 appointment of Yannick Nezet-Seguin boded well for the ensemble’s future in regard to its international reputation but less so for its repertoire.

Both Stokowski and Ormandy tended to program the music of Bach and Handel in modern transcriptions. But they did program those works because they believed that they formed the foundation of the symphonic repertoire. From there, however, their programs opened out into the symphonic scores of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss, Debussy, Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, and many more, including 20th century Americans such as Copland and Barber.

The coming Philadelphia Orchestra season is short on the music of many of these geniuses. More troubling still, those selections are often “repeats” from recent seasons rather than less well known but equally worthy compositions by the same composers.

What does the season offer? It presents a high percentage of contemporary pieces written by untried musicians – a risky business even during the most stable of times. It’s understandable that the Orchestra wants to stake a claim to “relevance” by programming new music, but that goal could easily be accomplished by giving second and third performances to proven works commissioned by other ensembles.

Of course, these new scores could very well attract new audience members numbering more than a handful. But might they not also drive away many more hundreds of lovers of the standard repertoire? Then where would the Philadelphia Orchestra be?

You can contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net. To read more of NOTEWORTHY, visit chestnuthilllocal.com/Arts/Noteworthy.

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