Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Hanging Out in Philadelphia's Kimmel Center

Verizon Hall exterior under the Kimmel Center dome
The reason I chose Temple University for both undergraduate and graduate Music Theory study was that I wanted to be in a big city with a big orchestra, a big opera company, a big ballet company, and a big amount of chamber ensembles and other music opportunities. By 'big' I mean well-respected and frequently offering performances. Back when I was in college and graduate school,
Inside the Academy of Music
most of these performances happened in the stately Academy of Music, built with opera in mind in 1857. Riccardo Muti conducted most of the time. Back in my heyday, there was talk of a future venue designed for the city's world-class orchestra, but I finished school and moved away before groundbreaking. That new venue turned out to be Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center, a little over a block south from the venerable Academy, and approximately an hour's automobile or train ride from my current dwelling. While the Academy seats 2900 listeners, Verizon Hall seats a mere 2400 on more comfortable red mohair seats.

"It's only an hour away," I thought, as I examined the Orchestra's schedule of concerts. I was in a giving (to myself) mood and selected an early November program devoted to Mahler's Second Symphony, "The Resurrection," and a later November program which featured the Orchestra's first-chair clarinetist, Ricardo Morales. The concerts were fantastic as I expected they'd be, but the extra stuff before and after were unexpected delights.


I like getting lost in a Mahler symphony, but the real reason
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
I selected this concert was to watch the relatively new conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra conduct the giant piece. I hadn't seen Yannick Nezet-Seguin conduct yet, but I've been impressed with his social media presence and his outreach to the musically-interested community. He has a superstar reputation and held that orchestra in the palm of his hand throughout the over-eighty minute work.

This symphony first performed in 1894 is known as "The Resurrection" because it's the kind of work that builds and builds to a humongous climax as the huge orchestra and choir (the Westminster Choir College choir from Princeton) works out the melodies and motives and transforms them into a giant new sound. One of the delights of this afternoon was the pre-concert talk where I learned a bit about The Resurrection. There's no indication on the score, but Mahler described the 'program' or story in general terms. The listener should imagine themselves standing at the grave of a beloved deceased person and let the music of the first movement represent their grief. The second, third, and fourth movements are intermezzi in which the mourner reminisces on the deceased's life. Then in the fifth movement, the listener is graveside again, experiencing the pain of loss along with a glimpse of optimism that comes with thoughts of the last judgment and resurrection. (I struggle with words to describe this profound piece; the music says so much more.) It's during the fifth movement the the giant choir sneaks in, at first barely perceptible, but ultimately strong at the conclusion.

After the meal of Mahler, there was desert! three of the orchestra's cello players came back on stage to play some chamber music. Yannick Nezet-Seguin himself (in street clothes now) introduced this "Postlude,"Leopold Mozart's Frosch-Parthia in C major and the Beethoven Trio in C major, Op. 87, both works arranged for three cellos.


Ricardo Morales
After many years of playing the clarinet in school, college, graduate school, and in various ensembles afterwards, the clarinet seems to me my own voice. Back in the days when the orchestra performed in the Academy of Music, Anthony Gigliotti was the first-chair clarinettist that everyone went to hear and schlepped to Philadelphia to study with. Since 2003 that chair is held by Ricardo Morales, who, before his arrival in Philadelphia, was first-chair with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. (A career to envy!) Morales dazzled us with two clarinet works, the Debussy Rhapsody No. 1, for Clarinet and Orchestra and the Rossini Introduction, Theme, and Variations for Clarinet and Orchestra, two pieces that I've studied and on my best day might have played at one-eighth the speed. Take a look at the photo at the left of Morales with his clarinets (orchestral clarinetists carry two, one in A and one in Bb). One of them is brown. This is unusual as most clarinets since the beginning of time are black as licorice and made from grenadilla wood or African mpingo. This orangey-brown wood is called cocobolo and comes from Central America. I want one. Here's a sample of a rehearsal of the Debussy piece with this very soloist:

The orchestra, under the baton of guest conductor Juanjo Mena, also played Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol (with all its fiery clarinet licks) and the Tchaikovsky Symphony #5. And there was desert after this: four orchestra members enchanted us with the Ravel String Quartet.


A soft-spoken veteran usher named Bill walked a gang of us through the Kimmel Center: Verizon Hall, the Perelman Theater, and the mysterious Roof Garden. Verizon Hall is where the Philadelphia Orchestra concerts happen along with other events including the venerable Philadelphia Speaker Series I also attend. The spectacular mahogany interior of this hall is shaped like a cello to enhance the sound, and (I didn't know this until the tour), is protected from subway noise by twenty-four-inch blocks of rubber under the building. The corridors we walk through to get into the hall also provide insulation from noise. Centered behind the stage is the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ with its 7,000 pipes. It is the largest concert hall organ in the United States.

Verizon Hall's stage set up for the Philadelphia Orchestra
The Perelman Theater was created for smaller performances and features a rotating turntable stage that I didn't know about. The seats on the floor (orchestra level) actually fold down and slide under the stage in order to permit even more varieties of events. The unexpected concrete floors add to the live acoustics of this hall.
Inside the Perelman Theater
And then there is the Roof Garden. I'd never seen this space, but I had heard that after only a few years it was necessary to renovate it. The story is it was meant to be a garden with trees and plants, but it was too hot to use in the warmer months. Under that glass dome temperatures rose to 130 degrees! So, the space was re-thunk and the Roof garden got its own roof and air-conditioning system and now accommodates parties, weddings, concerts, meetings, and other events that do not require oppressive tropical heat.

The Kimmel Center's cool Roof Garden space (looking north)

The Roof Garden again, looking west
Looking south at Broad Street (the Avenue of the Arts) from the Roof Garden
I'm pleased that I splurged these two orchestra concerts and their extras. All too often I get hung up on how things used to be back in the glorious college days and why do they have to change, EVER? I feel content now that Yannick Nezet-Seguin has replaced Muti, the Kimmel Center has replaced the Academy of Music, and Ricardo Morales has replaced Gigliotti. I just had to get to know them!