Venerable Philadelphia Orchestra to pay Miami a visit

Arts / Article

The Philadelphia Orchestra. Photo by Chris Lee.

Miami is to be visited by a centenarian. She is 115 years old and represents the best of the American orchestral tradition. Perhaps the most venerable among the “big five” orchestras (though Bostonians may disagree), the Philadelphia Orchestra is scheduled to grace the stage of Knight Concert Hall at the Arsht Center this Thursday, Feb. 25.

The source of “Philadelphia Sound,” the orchestra became a legend under conductor Leopold Stokowski, and later, as “Eugene Ormandy’s orchestra.” It was the star of the RCA Victor and Columbia recordings through which so many discovered Beethoven, Brahms and “the Russians.” The latter included Rachmaninoff, who premiered his Piano Concerto No. 4 and “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” with the Philadelphia Orchestra, in addition to conducting it on several occasions.

That was an era in which orchestras, indisputable cultural emblems of their respective cities, competed fiercely to see which deserved the title of “the best” among their domestic and European archrivals. They were ruled with an iron hand by sometimes tyrannical conductors from the Old World: Serge Koussevitzky and Charles Munch in Boston, George Szell in Cleveland, Dimitri Mitropoulos and Leonard Bernstein in New York, Fritz Reiner and Georg Solti in Chicago, and the afore-mentioned Stokowski and Ormandy in the City of Brotherly Love.

From its famous 1973 tour of China as the first Western orchestra to perform in the then-impenetrable nation, to its move to the Kimmel Center that now houses it, to its recent labor strife, the orchestra has seen much water pass under the bridge, yet it still stands. It still has the unmistakably rich and intense sound of “the Fabulous Philadelphians,” as its musicians were called during Stokowski’s and Ormandy’s tenures (1912-1936 and 1936-1980, respectively). Featuring opulent strings “à la italiana,” the legendary ensemble was conducted by Riccardo Muti from 1980 to 1992, and later by Wolfgang Sawallisch, Christoph Eschenbach and Charles Dutoit. In 2012, a new era began with the appointment of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who has said that the “Philadelphia Sound is born of the deep musicality, the generosity of spirit and the incomparable commitment to ensemble playing of our musicians.” At 40, the Montreal native is one of the brightest stars in the conducting world, and his dynamic style has infused new energy into the orchestra, with which he is under contract through 2022.

Nevertheless, Yannick won’t be leading the Philadelphia Orchestra during its Miami visit. That job will fall to the orchestra’s principal guest conductor since last season, Stéphane Denève, who is well known and admired here for his previous work with the New World Symphony. The effervescent French conductor is yet another star experiencing an unstoppable ascent in the musical big leagues. A two-time winner of France’s Diapason d’Or de l’Année award, conducting assistant to Georg Solti and frequent visitor to America, Denève is chief conductor of the Brussels Philharmonic and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra.

During his visit to Miami, Denève will work with a Knight Arts grantee, the orchestral group Miami Music Project, which is made up of students ages 9-18. Denève will help students at Little Havana’s Citrus Grove Middle School prepare to play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the prelude to Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” at the Manuel Artime Theater. Afterwards, Denève will treat the students to the major concert he is conducting at Knight Concert Hall.

Employing the full orchestra but no star soloist, the Miami program is titled “Shakespeare in Love.” It includes Hector Berlioz’s “Overture to Beatrice and Benedict” (inspired by the Bard’s “Much Ado About Nothing”), excerpts from Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and selections from Sergei Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” ballet.

Three composers with distinctive styles will enable the audience to appreciate Shakespeare from French, German and Russian musical perspectives via one of the world’s great orchestras. The concert also lends itself to a fascinating comparison of the Philadelphia Orchestra and its friendly rival, the Cleveland Orchestra, scheduled to play the same stage two weeks later. These are both events Miamians cannot afford to miss.

Tickets are available online or by calling the box office at 305-949-6722.