Steve Martin brought his banjo and dry humor. Renée Fleming looked deep into a well of reflection. Valerie Coleman, in her still-new six-minute orchestral essay, argued for regeneration and hope.
For an institution dealing in a 300-year-old artform, the Philadelphia Orchestra has been pretty timely lately. Saturday night, its online gala seemed more relevant postponed than it would have been in its original June 6 time slot.
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It’s not just that two weeks ago was no time to celebrate anything, with protests raising the conscience of a nation on social justice and other matters of life and death. The orchestra ended up streaming a mix of performance and contemplative talk on June 6 instead of the gala.
But coming now, Saturday’s free 75-minute show — on its website and through Facebook Live — was a way for the group to assert the critical role of culture in the city whatever may lie ahead.
If it felt a bit stiff in its script and sometimes a little too informal in its dress, the “at-home gala” succeeded in doing much of what any institution facing this pandemic-forced shutdown could hope to achieve. It told fans that it’s still there, plucky even under grave threat, and that one day it will gather again.
“We can’t wait to be with you in person, and until then we send you our love,” music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin told those watching the gala (which remains viewable at philorch.org through Thursday).
The event brought in money. So far, a gross of $735,000 has been raised from almost 700 donors through both online pledges during the livestream as well as heavy hitters who gave in advance. About 29,000 viewers listened in Saturday night, an orchestra spokesperson said.
The variety show format brought prerecorded appearances from artists all over. Yo-Yo Ma put in a plug for the orchestra, and another segment highlighted the group’s work with All City Orchestra.
Lang Lang sent in an impressively introspective solo-piano performance of Debussy’s Reverie. Steve Martin on banjo was backed by members of the orchestra in a blue-grassy work called Office Supplies. Violinist Nicola Benedetti performed alone, and Wynton Marsalis played the blues.
Individual members of the orchestra performed, too — among them Jennifer Montone in a solo-horn distillation of Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Fleming and Nézet-Séguin performed Strauss’ Morgen, its poignance heightened by the obvious distance of her singing from home and him at his Montreal keyboard.
But it’s important to remember that as moving as some performances were, it’s not the Philadelphia Orchestra unless an orchestra is playing.
And so it was incredibly satisfying to hear the ensemble, even in a performance confected by sound engineers, in Coleman’s Seven O’Clock Shout. The piece seems destined to be adopted by orchestras all over, and not only because it springs from the indomitable spirit of front-line pandemic workers. It has a narrative that unfolds in concentrated form.
The opening trumpet-solo solitude gives way to the murmur of nature and serene strings. Instrumental solos emerge, extravagant in their liberation and hope, here played by clarinetist Samuel Caviezel, oboist Peter Smith, and flutist Patrick Williams. Coleman has a musical language all her own, but Seven O’Clock Shout makes your heart full the same way Aaron Copland can. It’s just the message we need right now.
Given all that has transpired in the larger world recently, the music video that ends the gala hasn’t aged well between completion and Saturday’s premiere. Set to Rachmaninoff’s melancholy Vocalise, aerial drone shots of a nighttime Center City reveal images of performing musicians projected onto the sides of skyscrapers.
True, it signals an orchestra at one with its city. But the video, by London-based 59 Productions, shows nothing of Philadelphia’s people or neighborhoods. The chasm between downtown wealth and the rest of the city has never been more glaring, and the orchestra in recent years has done more to bridge the gap than the glamour reel reveals.
Polished the video is. But in terms of a message for where this orchestra needs to head and is indeed already headed, it lacks layers and nuance — a mere postcard from an orchestra painting on a much larger canvas.