Concerts will be shorter — 60 to 75 minutes long — and without intermission. Attendance will be limited and audiences distanced. The ensemble will remain smaller, for now.
Other changes await listeners. But this fall, when the Philadelphia Orchestra walks onto the stage of Verizon Hall, it will be before live audiences for the first time in that hall in more than a year and a half, the orchestra announced Wednesday.
Musicians and repertoire are now set for the 2021-22 season, though only up to Dec. 31.
Among the highlights: soprano Pretty Yende and conductor Rafael Payare in major Philadelphia Orchestra debuts; veteran violinist Joshua Bell playing with and conducting the orchestra; new principal guest conductor Nathalie Stutzmann pairing Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) and Schubert’s Symphony No. 9; and music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin leading the orchestra and tuba player Carol Jantsch in the world premiere of Wynton Marsalis’ Tuba Concerto.
“There is such a feeling, not just from guest artists but also from the musicians of the orchestra and the staff and audiences, for this need to make music and to be together in the concert hall,” said orchestra president and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky.
The ensemble will also perform several concerts live at the Mann Center this spring and summer, though other than a May 15 performance for essential workers, those concerts have not yet been announced.
The orchestra’s artists, repertoire, and way of presenting itself today is a reflection of lessons learned during the pandemic and concurrent societal shifts. Along with its live performances, the orchestra will continue online concerts in the fall. That series is not simply an online version of live concerts from fall 2021. Rather, the seven online programs are a mix of new and previously released performances.
The art itself will be different, too. Several seasons ago, after criticism for initially announcing a 2018-19 season with no female composers, the orchestra began appointing women to the conducting staff and programming more work by women. More recently, the orchestra has diversified its repertoire and roster of guest artists in online concerts started during the pandemic, building a presence for Black composers and other artists.
That focus will continue in the fall.
“We are broadening the canon,” says Tarnopolsky. “We are recognizing far more deeply the power of music in expressing thoughts and ideas that words alone cannot. You’ll see music by a much greater diversity of composers, and much greater diversity of artists on our stage.”
Aspects of the concert presentation are also evolving.
For one, musicians are leaving behind their traditional formal dress and white-tie-and-tails uniform. Instead, they will be clad in the more informal black dress used in Digital Stage presentations of the past year or so.
The change is a trial balloon, an orchestra spokesperson says, though Tarnopolsky’s preference is clear.
“I’d love it to be permanent. It’s a sensational look that I hope is here to stay,” he said.
Live performances will also make more use of video and lighting for an enhanced visual experience.
“What we’ve learned from this moment, and especially from the Digital Stage, is to pay even more attention to the theatrical power and the magic of the ceremony of the concert hall,” said the orchestra’s president.
Other changes: For the fall, the orchestra will sell tickets only on a create-your-own-package basis. The traditional system to which many have subscribed — “Thursday A Series,” etc. — is suspended for now and is expected to return in January.
For social-distancing reasons, only about half of the hall will be sold. Every other row will remain empty, and seats will be sold in pods of twos, threes, and fours.
Capacity ceilings may evolve, depending on safety guidelines.
“Right now the responsible thing to do is to sell only half the seats, and if conditions improve, we’ll revisit,” Tarnopolsky said.
Listeners will see a continuation of works for forces on the smaller end of the scale — symphonies by Mozart and Mendelssohn, Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins and String Orchestra.
“You’re unlikely to see Shostakovich-, Mahler-, and Bruckner-sized orchestras until January,” said Tarnopolsky.
The fall season so far includes eight live programs plus an opening night on Oct. 5 with cellist Yo-Yo Ma; Bramwell Tovey leading a series of “Glorious Sound of Christmas” concerts (choir participation to be determined); a Handel Messiah with conductor Julian Wachner (choir not yet named); and a New Year’s Eve concert.
Traditional repertoire is plentiful, often programmed alongside some notable premieres. For instance, the orchestra pairs Mozart with Sermon, a triptych of works sung by bass-baritone Davóne Tines that explores what it means to exist in society as a marginalized voice, as Tines explains in the online presentation of it premiering this week. Next season, Sermon will be presented both live and online.
In addition to the Marsalis Tuba Concerto, the orchestra will unveil a new Clarinet Concerto by Jacob Bancks with Ricardo Morales as soloist. Robin Holcomb’s Paradise, a response to the California wildfires, will be premiered. And, for the first time, the orchestra will perform William Grant Still’s Out of the Silence and Melinda Wagner’s Little Moonhead.
The orchestra will continue its exploration of works by Florence Price.
Artists and repertoire for the season beyond January are expected to be announced in September, though a March project between the orchestra and University Musical Society was announced this week by that esteemed series in Ann Arbor, Mich. The orchestra will perform two live concerts in Hill Auditorium and players will lead master classes and participate in other events with the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. The Philadelphians have a long history in Ann Arbor, appearing as the society’s resident orchestra from 1936 to 1984.
The orchestra is detailing only the fall season now because of the unpredictable course of the pandemic, as well as for economic reasons, said Tarnopolsky.
“We’re very excited and hopeful for great ticket sales when we come back, but we also need to be aware that there are many in our audience who might be nervous about coming back, so we need to make sure the ticket dollars are there.”
The orchestra has been tracking audience attitudes since June 2020, and while patrons are still feeling cautious, they have recently begun to express more of a willingness to return to the concert hall.
“If that trend continues, we will all be delighted,” Tarnopolsky said.
Existing Philadelphia Orchestra subscribers will get first access to seats, from May 5 through May 26, at which point packages go on sale to the general public. Single tickets go on sale in August. philorch.org, 215-893-1955.