Orchestra opens season with a gala that looks back

Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the Philadelphia Orchestra at its performance at Verizon Hall. The gala raised $550,000 before expenses for general operating support, a spokeswoman said. (TOM GRALISH/Staff Photographer)

What is the artistic future of the Philadelphia Orchestra - its repertoire, its sound, its personality? Wednesday's opening-night gala passed up a chance to answer that big question, and asked instead: Did we ever tell you about Fantasia?

About 1,100 guests sat in Verizon Hall to watch clips and hear the orchestra play excerpts from the 1940 film before about half headed to the lobby for dinner. The event raised $550,000 before expenses for general operating support, a spokeswoman said.

Money was the subtext of a speech by Richard Woodhams, known publicly as the orchestra's principal oboist, but also a member of the musicians' committee in current talks for a new labor agreement. He made no specific plea, though the mention of labor talks at a celebratory event such as this was unusual. With negotiations reaching a critical point in the next week or so, he said, the goal was a contract with the kind of "conditions" that would preserve "our great orchestra" - polite code for a deal good enough that players don't strike or flee.

Orchestra board chairman Richard Worley told the audience that there was nothing in Woodhams' speech with which he disagreed. He said he hoped an agreement would be reached soon.

If opening night didn't signal a living, breathing artistic direction for the orchestra, the first full program of the year this weekend holds the promise of even more glances at the past: Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and, in a small flourish of novelty, Rachmaninoff's underexposed but hardly unknown Piano Concerto No. 4.

Wolfgang Sawallisch once revisited the so-called Philadelphia Sound (if briefly, in a disc of Stokowski transcriptions), and current music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin will spend this season exploring the idea. Of course, Sawallisch was working with an ensemble that was still at least partly Ormandy's, and the old concept of homogeneity above all snapped back into place.

What about Nézet-Séguin? The deck was stacked against him, in a way. He conducted Nutcracker segments from Fantasia, and because the tempos were dictated by the pace of the film, interpretive choices were limited. It left you feeling a little protective of Nézet-Séguin, who at this point in his tenure really should be establishing his own focus. He already tipped his hat to the famous conductor several years ago in a Stokowski celebration.

And yet there's more to come. Orchestra president Allison Vulgamore told the gala crowd that the orchestra and Nézet-Séguin will be included in a November 75th anniversary rerelease of Fantasia, with video and audio from the rehearsal and Wednesday's concert.

Stokowski was present, too, in the portion of the concert without Fantasia visuals - in his orchestrations of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Debussy's Clair de lune, and Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice. It was all very pleasant, though even unburdened by film-dictated tempos, not much of a personal imprint emerged. Nézet-Séguin in his fourth season as music director risks shadow dancing with his own predecessor.