The stage of Verizon Hall was so crowded with complex percussion and electronic equipment and, of course, the Philadelphia Orchestra that you weren’t sure how anyone could physically maneuver during the Thursday premiere of Philadelphia Voices by Tod Machover.
And that didn’t even count the amassed choirs that crowded the seating area overlooking the stage. Living up to its name meant Philadelphia Voices had a lot to encompass, and a seasoned composer like Machover cast a wide net that included not just orchestral effects but speech, singing, much in between, and field recordings made around Philadelphia.
Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but currently a guest professor at the Curtis Institute, Machover has written a number of city-driven pieces, and he spent the last year assembling this one in the spirit of a documentary filmmaker — though with no obligation to tell a linear story.
Philly sounds, with subtitles
What came out was a series of movements that music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin described as something between an oratorio, cantata, and opera, each with subtitles to give the listener bearings in time and place.
In contrast, Machover’s earlier Detroit-focused Symphony in D had a number of spoken oral histories incorporated into the symphonic textures. More to my taste was Between the Desert and the Deep Blue Sea: A Symphony for Perth, built on exquisite nature sounds.
Philadelphia Voices is just as sophisticated as that one but more dense, the 30-minute piece running over 86 well-packed pages of score.
The fusion of it all was great fun. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the sizzling cheesesteaks heard over the 30 or so loudspeakers in the hall were some refined folk instrument (rain stick?). But the sheer size of the vocal contingent — including the Keystone State Boychoir, Pennsylvania Girlchoir, and Sister Cities Girlchoir — meant that details were hard to come by, especially in the interplay among voices, orchestra, and electronics.
And, this being one of three pieces on the program, rehearsal time was undoubtedly limited. So taking the full measure of Philadelphia Voices is impossible at this point. What most readily reached the ear in the first three movements were exclamations about the City of Brotherly Love and Benjamin Franklin that felt like a Chamber of Commerce billboard.
A surtitle screen that projected the text as it was being sung highlighted words that were meant to be heard in an overall vocal/symphony texture. The piece is better off without that visual aid.
I loved the rhythm and cacophony of the “Block Party” movement. Most powerful was the fifth movement, “My house is full of black people” with a somewhat-sung, somewhat-spoken text by local poet Jayda Hepburn that created a picture of immigrant life in Philadelphia with extremely well-chosen percussion commentary. This is music that could change minds and hearts in Philadelphia.
The piece is similar to Bernstein’s Mass, whom my Inquirer colleague Peter Dobrin described as a forum for ideas with appropriate musical characterization. Listeners shouldn’t expect the kind of purely musical sweep of modern symphonies by John Adams, or by Machover in his excellent, less-programmatic series of concertos.
And now SEPTA goes to New York?
I do wonder how this piece will go over on Tuesday at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Will those audiences get the reference to SEPTA? At least the text doesn’t employ some of the more enigmatic street names, like Moyamensing. Listeners on Thursday gave the piece a standing ovation. It was their symphony, and it never quoted W.C. Fields.
The rest of the concert was a warm bath. Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms was superbly sung by the Westminster Symphonic Choir with boy soprano Dante Michael DiMaio. It’s one of Bernstein’s least emotionally complicated choral works, full of straightforward joy and affection.
Nézet-Séguin‘s understanding of the piece was demonstrated in the third section, sometimes called “the Hawaiian movement” because some of the modal melodies suggest balmy breezes. He intelligently focused on the composer’s word settings more than the descriptive effects around it.
Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was more an investigation of pure sound. Though Nézet-Séguin had clearly studied the composer’s original piano version in the way musical events unfolded and flowed into one another, he was mostly interested in making the Ravel orchestration more amazing than usual.
I didn’t love his elongating tempos in the final moments, but again he proved — as he also did in his recent Rotterdam radio broadcast of Mahler’s gargantuan Symphony No. 8 — that grand sounds need not lose the fine qualities of timbre. The orchestra played extremely well, with principal trumpet David Bilger handling the solos with a mellow tone but imposing manner, each note arriving like a string of emeralds.
The program is repeated April 6 and 7 at the Kimmel Center. Tickets: $61-163. Information: 215-893-1999 or philorch.org.