Two classical music event during the next week should make area residents remember just how culturally rich this region is — where world class art is made or makes a visit.
On Saturday, February 11, McCarter Theater will present the Philadelphia Orchestra. While the theater is highlighting the fact that the orchestra has not appeared there in 30 years, the real story is that the Philadelphia Orchestra is one of the world’s great symphony orchestras, and this “real deal” arrival in town to perform provides easy access to those who have never made the trip to Philadelphia to attend one of its concerts — or any symphony presentation.
The orchestra is rich with history, prestige, and popular culture.
While it was founded in 1900, the orchestra emerged as a world force in 1912 when Leopold Stokowski took on the role of conductor. The British-born organist and choir director was both a consummate musician and showman. In fact, his long hair and forceful movements eventually became the caricature of the conductor, with even Bugs Bunny imitating him.
During a tenure that lasted through 1936, Stokowski explored a supple and less rigid style, introduced regional audiences to composers who would become 20th-century staples, led the orchestra on world tours, made critically acclaimed recordings (recorded across the river at the Victor Talking Machine studios in Camden), and launched a concert series for children.
He also took a lasting place in popular culture when he and the orchestra appeared in Walt Disney’s 1940 film “Fantasia,” where in a moment of movie magic he shakes hands with Mickey Mouse.
The orchestra’s legacy and prominence continued in 1936 when Hungarian-born violinist Eugene Ormandy launched his 44-year tenure. Music writers credit Ormandy with refining the orchestra’s “Philadelphia Sound,” often called “lush, romantic, irresistible.”
Ormandy too made history in 1973 when the Philadelphia Orchestra became America’s first orchestra to tour the People’s Republic of China. Ormandy also oversaw the recording nearly 400 albums — including three gold records.
Now fast forward to 1980 when Italian conductor Ricardo Muti assumed the role of conductor and challenged the orchestra and audience by presenting and commissioning work by contemporary composers. His was a tenure that relished unfamiliar works, showed off the orchestra’s ability to perform opera music.
German conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch followed in 1993. And during his more popular 20-year tenure he restored the sound established by Stokowski and Ormandy and transitioned the orchestra from its traditional home at the Academy of Music on South Broad Street to the new state-of-the-art Kimmel Center down the street.
The orchestra has been led since 2012 by Yannick Nezet-Seguin. While the Montreal-born pianist-turned-conductor has international credits and has duties that include music director for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, he also has a regional connection: he studied at Westminster Choir College and frequently invites the Westminster Choir to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
There is another regional connection for this column: me. Like many others, my first orchestra experience was as a child hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra in “Fantasia” and being mesmerized by mushrooms dancing to Tchaikovsky’s “Tea” from “Nutcracker” and dinosaurs moving to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” The Philadelphia Orchestra was also the first orchestra I attended, during a school trip. It was in the 1960s and assistant conductor William Smith led the orchestra through some popular works, including sections of “Nutcracker.” Smith also served as a conductor for the Greater Trenton Symphony Orchestra.
Since I played trombone in the school band and lived in the Philadelphia area, I started attending the Philadelphia Orchestra on a regular basis, hearing the orchestra led by Ormandy and guest conductors and without realizing had some of the richest musical experiences on the globe. That included the night Ricardo Muti took over the orchestra and filled the hall with an exciting new presence and sound. Then years later, during a free concert on Delaware River, I took my son to his first orchestra presentation. While I have attended — and continue to attend — orchestra concerts of equal quality, I am biased: the Philadelphia Orchestra is my orchestra.
The McCarter presentation will be led by guest conductor Stephane Deneve and will feature Russian-born pianist Denis Kozhukhin — cited by the Chicago Classical Review as “one of the most technically equipped pianists of our time.” The program is made up of two monumental works: the notoriously difficult to perform Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff, one of the early 20th century composers championed by Stokowski, and Symphony No. 7 by Beethoven, who called the dance-rhythm inspired work “one of the happiest products of my poor talents.”
Philadelphia Orchestra, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Saturday, February 11, 8 p.m. $70 to $100. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.
The other musical event is the Monday, February 13, performance of Mozart’s Requiem, part of a program performed by the combined talents of Westminster Choir College and Juilliard School in Manhattan. The performance is at Princeton University Chapel.
The Requiem is one of the most mythic scores in Western music. Mozart’s final work, it began in the summer of 1791 with an anonymous letter asking for a commission, a visit by a “grim gray man” with an advance from a notorious count, Mozart’s sudden death in December, and an incomplete score.
Yet beyond the intrigue made popular by the Broadway play and film “Amadeus,” Mozart’s Mass for the dead is noted for the composer’s mastery of styles and full expressive power — so much so that it was selected as the tonal background for two major American tragedies: the funeral of assassinated U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the first anniversary memorial for the September 11 World Trade Center Attacks.
While the original work was first “completed” by one of Mozart’s students in 1792, the practice of finishing the work continues, and the current production features visiting Juilliard faculty member Robert Levin’s treatment.
“Mozart’s unfinished Requiem presents a breathtaking tableau of Baroque and Classical style,” writes Levin. “The present completion seeks a stylistically idiomatic restoration that fully respects its 200-year history. All of the changes seek to emphasize the spiritual and dramatic power of Mozart’s fragment by placing it in a more focused light. As inadequate as such attempts must be, it is hoped that it will serve Mozart’s spirit while honoring his craftsmanship.”
The work will also be honored through the venue. The Princeton Chapel’s neo-Gothic architecture physically echoes the Requiem’s aural expanses and contractions, highs and lows, and feelings of dark weight and lighten release. It promises to be a perfect design match.
The Requiem is part of an all-Mozart program that includes the 1786 concert aria “Ch’io mi scordi di te?” (Will I Forget You?), the 1791 liturgical work “Ave verum corpus” (Hail, true body), and the 1783 Symphony No. 36, also known as the Linz after the Austrian town in which the work was composed.
Juilliard faculty member Gary Wedow conducts the Juilliard Orchestra, singers from Juilliard’s Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts, and, of course, Westminster Choir College Chorus.
Mozart Masterworks, including Requiem, Princeton University Chapel, Princeton University, Monday, February 13, 7:30 p.m. $20. 609-921-2663 or www.rider.edu/arts.