The Philadelphia Orchestra plays in the Kimmel Center, a magnificent modern structure that towers over Broad Street. Some years ago, the orchestra was relocated from the Academy of Music, another grand building which now houses the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Some critics yearn for the lavish Academy of Music with its crystal chandeliers. Others have said that the sound quality has decreased in this new building. But I would disagree.
The Kimmel Center is vast yet elegant. The ceiling of the lobby is made of panels of clear glass designed to let the sunshine spill in. For evening performances the glass is less visible, and the ceiling of the lobby becomes the night sky. The concert hall is a grand four-level room with seats of red velvet and mahogany. The many lights emit a warm glow onto the hall and its players.
The denizens of the Philadelphia Orchestra concerts are among the nicest music-loving people I have met. I once sat next to a friendly couple, perhaps in their eighties, who proudly told me they had been members of the Philadelphia Orchestra since they were first married and have attended nearly every performance after that. Another time I sat next to an enthusiastic six-year-old and her father. He explained that he used to have a student membership at the Philly Orchestra during his student days and wanted his daughter to have the same experience. Her eyes lit up as soon as Yannick raised his baton.
Today was the opening of the season, and a grand opening it was. Even more surprising was the presence of the president of Mongolia sitting in the audience flanked by his delegation. He smiled and waved at the stunned audience. I later learned the Philadelphia Orchestra had performed in Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia, earlier this year. A stirring rendition of the Mongolian national anthem and then the American national anthem shook the hall.
The best was yet to come. Chinese pianist Yuja Wang performed Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21. One of the most beautiful pieces of music! (I recommend the second movement.) Yuja Wang has the most striking stage presence. She literally shone on stage, as she was wearing a shiny silver dress that glinted in the light, along with a pair of stilettos. The audience was amused at her fashion. Who plays the piano in stilettos? Yet their amusement turned to awe and then to a standing ovation with shouts of “encore! encore!”
Wang played the keys with such power and passion that her fingers flew. As if to prove she had a sense of humor in addition to the Sturm und Drang of Chopin, Wang thrilled the audience with an encore— Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca with added syncopation, ragtime-style. The piece was the child of Mozart and Scott Joplin. Difficult to imagine, nearly impossible to play, and spectacular to hear. The audience loved it.
The performance had only just begun. The orchestra played Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. With movements such as “Daydreams, Passions,” “March to the Scaffold,” and “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” it is a masterpiece of Byronic drama. As the Playbill aptly stated, “This combination of sex, drugs, and the Gothic was typically Romantic and Berlioz brings it off with startling brilliance.” The fifty-minute piece was conducted by the masterly Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who did not have a music stand. He knew every note of the music. And that is why Yannick is so beloved. He feels the music with his whole body. He glides with the strings, jumps with the tympani, and conducts his orchestra with such grace that the audience is transported. Alas, Philadelphia isn’t the only one to recognize his talents, and he will leave us for the Metropolitan Opera in 2020. (Four more years! All the more reason to buy your student membership for $25 now.)
I have never been to another concert hall where the applause is so ecstatic and joyful. Mawrters, Philadelphia is 20 minutes away. Carpe diem!