The Mann Center takes the populist road again this summer, matching orchestras with projected images, a video-game heroine, and fireworks.
Philadelphia's own resident orchestral ensemble, for which the Mann Center for the Performing Arts was built, works another reduced load, with just six concerts (down from 18, 12, or the more recent norm of nine). The Mann has tried to get more, but the orchestra says its busy summer in China, Colorado, and Saratoga Springs, N.Y., has made scheduling at the Mann difficult.
Mann president Catherine M. Cahill says she would like to change that. "The Mann was built to be the premier summer home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and we remain passionate about our partnership. But we also remain committed to presenting other great national and international orchestras, opera companies, dance, and ballet companies," she said.
And so the mighty Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will appear with its acclaimed music director, Manfred Honeck, July 24 in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 and, with cellist Johannes Moser, the Dvorák Cello Concerto. The next night, large game screens go up when the Pittsburghers play The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses, an audio/video ode to the video-game classic that has gripped tens of millions of children well into adulthood. Only the first Pittsburgh appearance will be led by Honeck. Irish conductor/composer Eímear Noone will handle the Zelda concert.
"They were adamant about wanting their music director on stage, and we love that," Cahill said. This is the second year of a three-year contract between Pittsburgh and the Mann.
The Mann also invited incoming Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin - but to no avail. He is making his debuts this summer with the orchestra at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, and is leading the Philadelphians in four concerts at the Academy of Music in June. But the orchestra says he has not been able to free up his schedule to perform in Fairmount Park.
"Unfortunately, the two weeks that we were able to commit to the Mann for summer 2012 simply did not work in Yannick's international conducting schedule of both opera and orchestra engagements," said a spokeswoman from Brian Communications in an e-mail after a query was sent to the orchestra's public relations staff. "These commitments were made prior to these dates' being selected and these obligations preclude him from joining the Orchestra there."
Cahill says she is eager to have him at any time.
"The Mann continues to have an open-door policy and would welcome Yannick to the Mann stage as his schedule permits. He belongs on the Mann stage."
The summer season starts early, May 11, with a free concert that represents an expanding relationship between the Mann and the Curtis Institute of Music. The orchestra of the Curtis, with conductor Rossen Milanov, performs Brahms and Bernstein on its way out of town for dates in Europe.
Tickets are necessary, but are free and are being provided without a handling fee, said Cahill.
The season is dotted with Curtis students or graduates. English pianist Alexander Ullman, 20, in his third year at the conservatory, performs with the Philadelphia Orchestra June 29 in its all-Tchaikovsky concert with conductor Cristian Macelaru, in the Piano Concerto No. 1. The orchestra hosts Broadway singer Idina Menzel the next night, and trumpeter Chris Botti July 19. On July 20, the orchestra recognizes the 80th birthday of John Williams in a concert of his film music - "plus something from his serious concerto repertoire," Cahill said.
Visuals figure heavily in the orchestra's July 21 concert, led by pops conductor Michael Krajewski. Short warhorses - "Ride of the Valkyries," "Flight of the Bumblebee" - will accompany thematically related footage assembled by producer Elliott Forrest. "He has captured images of things that the music may be related to, though it is of course subjective," Cahill said.
Il Divo will be joined by a yet-to-be-determined ensemble on June 9, and "Cirque Dreams: Pop Goes the Rock" on July 22 will use a recorded soundtrack. The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia backs America's Got Talent singer Jackie Evancho Aug. 25.
The season offers a notable debut by conductor Xian Zhang, the Chinese-born music director of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, who has been associated with the New York Philharmonic. Her repertoire with the Philadelphia Orchestra on June 27: Bach, Domenico Gabrielli, and, with the Philadelphia Singers, Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.
On the pop side, the Mann brings in Foster the People with Tokyo Police Club & Kimbra on June 14, and Furthur (Grateful Dead minus Jerry Garcia) on July 7. More pop acts are expected to be booked in coming weeks.
In regard to the continuing trend toward populist classical repertoire and concept shows, Cahill acknowledges that the Mann Center for the Performing Arts has moved far from the days when artistic director Charles Dutoit could program plenty of Gershwin and Copland, but Martinu and Schoenberg, too, plus a nearly complete multiyear Mahler cycle. With delicate finances, no corporate sponsor for the classical season, and capacity for 14,000 listeners (4,500 seats under cover), the trend is not likely to be reversed anytime soon.
Said Cahill: "We're in a position where we just can't take any risk. The Mann is truly the everyman venue."