Carnegie Audience To Philadelphia Orchestra: 'Hang in There!'

NEW YORK — Something odd, possibly unprecedented in recent memory, greeted the Philadelphia Orchestra before it played its first note at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday. In the first New York concert after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, concertmaster David Kim arrived onstage to what would normally be polite, obligatory applause but instead turned into a loud ovation, vocalizations and all.

“It was a New York audience saying, ‘Hey, hang in there!’ ” said Cori Ellison, former New York City Opera dramaturg and a regular pre-concert lecturer in Philadelphia.

“Some members of the audience stood, to the evident pleasure of the musicians,” observed Sedgwick Clark, editor of the Musical America website.

“As always, we’re delighted to welcome them back to New York,” said Clive Gillinson, executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall before to the concert. “We consider them to be among the finest in the world.”

The bankruptcy was much on the lips of music-industry professionals at a reception Tuesday afternoon for the newly published book Carnegie Hall Treasures, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Tim Page. At the concert that night, some 16 critics were present, slightly more than average.

“The world is curious...we’re still the same,” orchestra violinist Phil Kates observed.

The evening’s long-planned program wasn’t the sort to inspire an effusive orchestral love fest: Echoing last week’s Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, the concert centered on Stravinsky — and anything but his best-known pieces. No surprise that 20 percent of the Carnegie seats were empty. Yet the crowd was extremely attentive, peppered with denizens from the Metropolitan Opera’s upper tiers, as well as those they often buy tickets to see onstage, such as star baritone Bryn Terfel.

Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex lacks the thrilling dissonances of The Rite of Spring, and tells its tale of incest and eye-gouging with unflinching directness. It was preceded by Apollon musagète, a showcase for the famous Philadelphia strings, but a low-key one that some New Yorkers are more used to seeing, as well as hearing from the pit, when performed by the New York City Ballet.

“It’s not exactly background music, but ...,” said regular Carnegie-goer James Berry.

Critic Clark followed the concert with scores in hand. “Apollo dragged shapelessly, lacking balletic verve; except for Kim’s bewitching violin solos, the string ensemble sounded unaccountable coarse and monochromatic.”

Oedipus Rex was a different story — “improved immeasurably” in Clark’s view — in a performance that showed Dutoit’s infrequently heard fierce side.

Many conductors approach the piece with interpretive neutrality, the idea being that the notes say it all. Not this one. Stravinsky himself once described the Philadelphia Orchestra’s sound as a “chinchilla echo,” but he wouldn’t have heard that in a performance that showed the conductor and vocal soloists in a high state of agitation.

By the end, normally articulate listeners could only describe the experience vaguely. “Impressive. Very impressive,” said Carnegie regular Ida Heyman.

The always-refreshing Carnegie acoustics no doubt aided the intensity. Baritone Rob Phillips of the Philadelphia Singers Chorale talked about the acoustical immediacy in the chorus’ interaction with the orchestra.

“The sound is right in front of you,” he said. “It’s been a while since we’ve been here. Hope it’s not the last.”

- David Patrick Stearns