Orchestra concert shines... sans puppets

A young member of the audience claps for the Philadelphia Orchestra at its family concert. Budget cuts curtailed the production, but not the enjoyment.

If there was something strongly reassuring about Saturday morning's Philadelphia Orchestra family concert, it came in a certain lack of bells and whistles - and puppets.

New York troupe Puppet Kitchen was originally billed for the Verizon Hall concert featuring Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. But puppets were felled by the orchestra's budget ax earlier this season.

How well such visuals would have worked with sound can't be known, of course. It might have been genius. But the star is the orchestra, and Britten doles out extravagant takes on Purcell's theme in pieces so smartly paced and chosen that even the most visually catered-to of a generation of catered-to children and parents must be swept up into it.

First Britten takes it all apart. Then, through music and narration, he explains it all. At the end, when the fugue takes shape and the central theme rises up in the ensemble, no one can fail to be moved.

The orchestra branded the concert "Yannick's Guide to the Orchestra," and it's true that for the music director to take the podium in a family concert is relatively rare. But Yannick Nézet-Séguin did not emcee. Actor Ben Steinfeld - deep of voice and bubbly of personality - was the host, and he narrated a version of the Britten with a script by stage polymath Simon Butteriss.

You may like it or lump it. There's little more exciting than a trumpet.

The viola, on the whole, has less glitter. But a lot of soul.

Butteriss' script was plenty pleasing to the ear - brass salvos were rhymed with brass valvos, and a clarinet, we were told, is muscular and had something to do with something . . . crepuscular?

Steinfeld sat on a stool and mimed in real time some of the orchestral sound. Part of the benefit of having your music director on the podium for a family concert is that it puts musicians on their mettle, and so it was here. The orchestra played beautifully.

Reassuring, too, was the presence of a winner of so high a caliber in the orchestra's venerable Greenfield Student Competition. Cherry Hill pianist Kasey Shao, 12, performed the first movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, elegant cadenza and all, and it seemed like a down payment on a budding talent from whom more will be heard. The orchestra was at its refined best, though Nézet-Séguin failed to balance certain wind sections with adequate care.

He opened with excerpts from Elgar's The Wand of Youth, and while the stage was being reset for the pianist, he once again proved a merry presence.

Of great orchestras, many bespeak. But for all things glitter, bring forth Yannick.