WILMINGTON - At any given time between October and May, it's a safe bet that any number of major international orchestras are coming through Philadelphia, only to see the city through an Amtrak widow.
Of course, we don't see them at all. More important, we don't hear them - not since the Kimmel Center decided a few years ago that its visiting orchestra series was a luxury the city could not afford. In April, for instance, both the San Francisco Symphony and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra play New York and D.C., and they will miss hitting one particularly great orchestra town in between.
But Friday night you could catch a visiting orchestra locally, at the Grand Opera House in downtown Wilmington. With the appearance of the Russian National Orchestra, the Grand is testing the waters for interest in classical programming, and the concert was promising. The Grand, too, gave up on visiting orchestras a few years back. The last was the Royal Philharmonic in 2012, and the small performing arts center hasn't had a distinct classical series of imports since 2006-07. An appearance by Evgeny Kissin, Itzhak Perlman, and Mischa Maisky earlier this season sold out.
The Russian National Orchestra's stop here was a natural in a way. The 1,140-seat auditorium at the Grand is named Copeland Hall, and Wilmington philanthropist Tatiana Copeland says she and her husband, du Pont scion Gerret Copeland, have long been "groupies" of the Russian ensemble. They helped underwrite the Wilmington stop as the first orchestra in the Grand's pilot program, dubbed the Renaissance Concerts. "We've been supporting them for 25 years, and have traveled to different countries to see them," she said. Asked what will determine whether the Grand will host more classical groups in the future, Copeland laughed. "Me. Audiences showing up and a certain level of financial support that is necessary at all times. I would like to continue the support, but people need to show that they want this. That's really the key."
Copeland points out that the city has the Delaware Symphony Orchestra, too, "and they have good classical programming, and I don't want in any way to take away from their success. I figure one or two performances by leading orchestras will encourage more people to attend classical performances."
Copeland says she came to this music in the cradle. Friday night's program carried a page explaining that Copeland's mother was a niece of Rachmaninoff. She was named for one of the composer's daughters, and plays classical music all day, she says. "It drives my husband crazy."
In particular, she loves Russian music, which has helped fuel a connection to Philadelphia. She is friends with Stéphane Denève, the Frenchman who became principal guest conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2014; the Copelands hosted his 2007 wedding at their Napa vineyard, Bouchaine. She says she will be supporting a major future project in Philadelphia involving Denève leading the orchestra in a Rachmaninoff cycle.
The Russians brought no Rachmaninoff with them Friday night, though the program, led by Kirill Karabits, leaned heavily Russian, opening with the stormy "Prelude" from Glazunov's From the Middle Ages, and concluding with an unusual arrangement of excerpts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.
This orchestra, founded only in 1990, has worked under a variety of conductors, with variable results. With Karabits in this small, dry hall, the orchestra took a rather matter-of-fact view. No one will accuse them of being overly sentimental with Prokofiev. The virtue of the arrangement by founding artistic director Mikhail Pletnev was that it touched on parts of the score that often get left out of the suites, and, by exposing the ensemble in a wide spectrum of textures, made it perfectly clear why hearing orchestras other than your own is so rewarding. What Western orchestra would ever render this love story with such arm's-length objectivity? The lack of rubato - the caressing of phrases to release emotion - was striking.
In between the two Russian works was Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor. Stefan Jackiw was soloist, coming across very much the same way he did in a recording a few years ago of the Brahms sonatas, which is to say refined and technically accomplished, if a bit cold. This was the perfect hall for appreciating his great virtue of being able to play in an extreme whisper with absolutely no decay in sound quality.
Mendelssohn in particular, however, must be about the more meaningful business of taking chances - at elation and sorrow and other matters of life that make magic more important than efficiency. It's not unlike the only real reason to be in the orchestra business in 2016.