Spirit of Stokowski stirs in Academy of Music

Toting Mickey Mouse dolls and donning Lilly Pulitzer shifts, the city’s youngest classical music fans made for a gorgeous spectacle Saturday morning filing into the Academy of Music. Yes, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s family concert was returning just this once to the Academy, which the ensemble largely left behind in 2001 for more acoustically advanced environs down the block.

The Academy is “still a little bit our home,” the orchestra’s next music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, told the audience.

Funny that when this orchestra needs to put across a sense of occasion, the Academy is the only place that can truly answer the call. Better acoustics? No thanks. Children today have no doubt achieved honors as the most technologically jaded yet. And yet, the charms of a 155-year-old concert hall were not beyond them. When the Academy’s lowered chandelier – bathed in purple tones – rose to signal the start of the concert, the audience oohed and applauded.

In abundant supply was the sure sign of success of anything aimed at children: that observed moment when the book, movie or show has also absorbed the adults. The ostensible reason for the one-hour concert was to celebrate Leopold Stokowski’s ascent to the podium a century ago. But for this audience of children – and many grandparents – there was little mention of the maestro. That was fine. The best way to look back at someone whose greatest contribution was looking forward is, in fact, to look forward. If the orchestra can consistently keep children as rapt as it did on this Saturday, it will have gone a long way to arresting audience drain.

Any number of octogenarians will tell you that Stokowski’s concerts for children – his charisma, his gift for theater – had a lot to do with developing a deep connection to classical music. The concert was framed not as a recreation of one of those legendary events, but as a nod to Stokowski’s more ambitious embrace of the masses: Fantasia (1940). In excerpts, the orchestra and Nézet-Séguin occupied the stage, performing with the film on a medium-sized but bright screen above. For all of its lack of sonic impact, the Academy of Music and its current stage shell do convey one of the orchestra’s most valuable assets, its homogeneity. The strings were not as cohesive as you might have wanted in Stokowski’s orchestration of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, but the winds glowed as a beautifully blended organ.

Having to pace himself with the film, Nézet-Séguin was in essence recreating Stokowski’s tempos rather than turning in interpretive sole-authorship. He was a good sport for going along with it, even when he found his leadership several seconds behind the action in movements from The Nutcracker. The humor and euphoria of Fantasia come from the fact that animation was conceived in response to specific gestures in the music. For the painful span of several excerpts, squat mushrooms started dancing before the music did, wind gusts shook leaves sooner on screen than in sound.

Mercifully, the cognitive dissonance was resolved for the longer sequence of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, when gods could heave thunder bolts and percussionists wield mallets in perfect accord. Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice easily won in the audience favorite category. Its shadowy, fine-grain images and splashy score have lost absolutely nothing to time.

Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre was given as a non-Fantasia encore, and came with wan images of fire and ghostly Valkyries projected onto the Academy’s columns on either side of the stage. Unimpressive, this. The most vivid specter of the event was the curator of music. Decades after Stokowski recognized the visceral qualities of popular repertoire, it still is somehow in the air, its emotional vernacular undiminished. PlayStation and Minecraft be damned. On this morning for children, classical was king, and Stokowski still the father of us all.