How does an orchestra celebrate a reunion with its public at a moment when the arts sector (the world, really) is feeling so tentative and delicate?
Gently, respectfully, movingly, the Philadelphia Orchestra answered Tuesday night at its official opener of the 2021-22 season.
Nothing was quite the same for this year’s celebration: no champagne and black-tie merriment before the concert, no gala dinner afterward, and, of course, the new uniform for everyone of face masks. More meaningfully, though, the orchestra devised an uninterrupted sequence of works to open the evening that acknowledged the odd COVID-weary zeitgeist of fall 2021.
Musicians gathered backstage and walked out all at once, European-style, drawing a standing ovation from the audience — a burst of gratitude on both sides of the footlights.
Then, with the back of Verizon Hall lit red and the organ pipes glowing blue, a white spotlight fell on cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who played the somber, meditative “Prelude” from Bach’s Suite No. 2 in D Minor.
With no space left for applause, another spotlight opened up on Charlotte Blake Alston, who spoke as Ma played a quiet soundtrack beneath her. Alston invoked the Ghanaian proverb represented by the Sankofa bird. Sankofa, she explained to the audience, means to “go back and fetch it,” and as the bird looks backward it also moves forward.
“It exhorts us to look to the past, grab onto its most important lessons, leave the rest behind, and use those lessons to move us forward into our shared future,” she said.
“We invite you to join with us having made the choice to stand in the name of human dignity; as we stand with a commitment to equity and fairness; as we stand and widen our circle of opportunity and inclusion, knowing we will be the richer for it.”
She ended by reciting Langston Hughes’ “I Dream A World.”
From there — again with no space given for applause — the mode shifted to soulful, with Ma, the orchestra, and music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin performing the “Aria” from Bachianas brasileiras No. 5 by Villa-Lobos, and then the more extroverted Saint-Saens Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor.
It takes some skill on the orchestra organization’s part to follow what it perceives as the public’s receptiveness to this balance of reflection and celebration. But it’s also an orchestra’s job to lead the public dialogue, and here there was a certain amount of risk. It went unremarked at the event, but this season opener skipped the traditional “Star Spangled Banner,” a move that might be perceived by some as a slight.
But do audiences really ruminate on the meaning of our national anthem, or does the ear simply accept it as de rigueur? Something deeper seemed called for this year, something more specific, and Alston and the musicians delivered it.
In a way, orchestra president and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky has been a quiet revolutionary since arriving here three years ago, working with Nézet-Séguin and others. The orchestra’s latest bid to erase the perception of a barrier is to drop the long-standing dress code of white tie and tails for the men of the orchestra. The question of concert attire isn’t trivial; we live in a visual age, and people see significance all over.
The loss of tails isn’t something I mourn. What does strike me about the new mono-black outfit (black suit, black shirt, black tie) is that it makes the orchestra recede. Nézet-Séguin is a kinetic presence, and his more streamlined outfits tend to go their own way. But this all-black for the players makes them disappear, which is not what an orchestra wants to do in this day and age. The orchestra is the thing. They should dress like it.
Not even the colored pocket squares men wore for opening night adequately called attention to the players. And, for violinists and violists, this small patch of color disappeared altogether when they lifted their instruments into place.
The sound of course was all there, and then some. The orchestra has actually reunited with audiences in steps, with a free concert last month and a matinee last Sunday in Verizon Hall that previewed the season. The general message: There will be Beethoven, and the tempos will be fast.
Tuesday night Ravel’s Bolero did a good job of putting players on their mettle. Yo-Yo Ma was in fine form, particularly impressive in the way he took quieter, more introspective passages of the Saint-Saens while still maintaining great presence.
To these ears, though, the piece on the program that impressed most was Valerie Coleman’s Seven O’Clock Shout, first unveiled online in June 2020 in some of the darkest days of the pandemic as a tribute to front-line workers. I’ve listened to the piece a dozen times or more now, and Tuesday live in Verizon Hall it seemed more vivid than ever.
You hear the orchestra members themselves cheering front-line workers at one point in the score. But it has become just as easy to imagine their rooting as a proxy for the generosity of humanity itself, and when you do, Coleman’s work, with its sound of a new dawn and the common good, says that everything is going to be alright. At the orchestra, at least, we can believe it.