One of the unquestioned laws of the musical world, Edith Wharton observed in The Age of Innocence, is that “German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.”
Borders have never been of much use in music, and the human voice casts a bright, if diffuse, spotlight this spring in Philadelphia.
It comes from all over. Singers worshiped elsewhere are imported by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society: plush mezzo Isabel Leonard in Bernstein, even more plush mezzo Sarah Connolly in core song repertoire, Lawrence Brownlee and Eric Owens together and apart in bel canto and spirituals.
And they say the song recital is dead.
If there is such a thing as perfection in music, La bohème is it. Opera Philadelphia delves into Puccini’s incredibly emotional score in a production that, using images lifted from the walls of local museums, stirs hometown pride. Before that, starting Feb. 8, Opera Philadelphia brings the oddly enchanting shimmer of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the stage in Robert Carsen’s venerable staging.
New music finds its sturdy voice this spring, with Bowerbird hosting New York-based Ekmeles Vocal Ensemble promising “music with spiritual focuses as diverse as Sufism, silence, cooking, and humor.” Really. The Mendelssohn Club ends its season with Tan Dun’s Water Passion after St. Matthew.
And with summer arrives populism in its best, and most vocal, sense of the word: Beethoven’s Ninth. It will be led by a well-traveled maestro finding his way to a local, leafy venue for the first time. The June 24 concert marks Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s Mann Center debut.
Imani Winds (Feb. 15 and May 3, American Philosophical Society and World Cafe Live). The virtuosic woodwind quintet visits Philadelphia twice in the next few months with two distinct programs.
The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society hosts the ensemble in February in the premiere of Penn professor James Primosch’s Quintet for Winds, among other works. (pcmsconcerts.org, 215-569-8080). Then, for Imani’s LiveConnections concert in May, the group imprints its big personality on works of Jobim, Piazzolla, and Villa-Lobos. (liveconnections.org, 267-295-2947)
Music for Food (Feb. 17 and 19, March 25, various venues). Pianist Jonathan Biss oversees most of the local efforts of this national group that raises money for hunger relief. The Feb. 17 PCMS concert, which benefits Philabundance, features the Orion Quartet and cellist Peter Wiley in Schubert at the American Philosophical Society.
The Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission is the beneficiary of the Feb. 19 concert of Mozart and Mendelssohn at the Asian Arts Initiative with Curtis students, faculty, and the Vera Quartet. Beethoven’s Septet and the Peter Rasmussen Wind Quintet inspire generosity toward the Broad Street Ministry with the March 25 concert at the College of Physicians. (musicforfood.net)
Lawrence Brownlee and Eric Owens (Feb. 22, Perelman Theater). The better part of Philadelphia’s operatic power structure will be represented when tenor Brownlee, artistic adviser to Opera Philadelphia, and bass-baritone Owens, newly named co-chief of the opera department at the Curtis Institute of Music, take the stage together with pianist Craig Terry.
In the program’s first half, they’ll sing individually (Mozart, Donizetti), and then together (“Au fond du temple saint” from Les Pêcheurs de Perles, among others). Popular American songs and spirituals form the program’s second half. (pcmsconcerts.org, 215-569-8080)
Florence Price Violin Concerto No. 1 (Feb. 24, Trenton War Memorial). Price, an African American composer who died in 1953, is getting some long-overdue attention lately from performers and critics. . The Philadelphia Orchestra played a movement from her Symphony No. 1 at its recent Martin Luther King Jr. tribute concert. And now Trenton’s Capital Philharmonic of New Jersey and violinist Samuel Thompson will give what the group is calling the East Coast premiere of her Violin Concerto No. 1. Daniel Spalding conducts. (capitalphilharmonic.org, 215-893-1999)
Don Giovanni (March 7-10, Perelman Theater). Conductor Karina Canellakis, the quickly rising 2004 Curtis graduate, has made a strong impression in concerts here with probing, individualistic interpretations. She returns with the formidable Mozart score in a Curtis Opera department production with stage director R.B. Schlather in the Perelman Theater. (curtis.edu, 215-732-8400)
Garrick Ohlsson (March 13, Perelman Theater). An all-Brahms recital from the powerful poet of the keyboard, including the breathtaking Opus 76 Eight Pieces, Opus 10 Ballades, and Variations on a Theme of Paganini. (pcmsconcerts.org, 215-569-8080)
Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia (March 13, Annenberg Center). Musicians from the ensemble feature chamber music by African American composers. On the program are works of Jonathan Bailey Holland, David Baker, Ulysses Kay, and Jeffrey Mumford. (annenbergcenter.org, 215-898-3900)
Isabel Leonard (March 17, Perelman Theater). Bernstein, Bernstein, and more Bernstein. The silken mezzo performs with pianist Ted Sperling in a recital of songs from West Side Story, Wonderful Town, Peter Pan, On the Town, Trouble in Tahiti, and Candide. (pcmsconcerts.org, 215-569-8080)
John Cage Sonatas and Interludes (March 21, University Lutheran Church). In this Penn Music Department/Bowerbird concert, pianist/composer Amy Williams performs Cage’s 1940s cycle of 20 works for “prepared” piano interspersed with new interludes by Nomi Epstein, Kevin Laskey, Robert Reinhart, Adam Vidiksis, Jeffrey Weeter, and Jay Alan Yim.
Williams says the performance is “composer approved,” in a way. “I have a set of preparations for the piano (screws, nuts and bolts, pieces of plastic, rubber, coins, etc.) that were given to me by a pianist who worked with John Cage very closely on the piece,” she says. (bowerbird.org)
Hannibal’s Healing Tones (March 28-30, Verizon Hall). Composer Hannibal Lokumbe has spent years visiting Philadelphia schools, churches, and prisons gathering material for a kind of hymn to the city, and, knowing Hannibal, humanity itself.
The Philadelphia Orchestra premieres it under the baton of music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin with the Morgan State University Choir, Philadelphia Heritage Chorale, and vocal soloists. It is paired with the Sibelius Symphony No. 2. (philorch.org, 215-893-1999)
Dénes Várjon (April 5, Perelman Theater). The Hungarian pianist, who impressed mightily at his 2014 local debut, returns with a program that promises both grand statements and introspection: the Beethoven Piano Sonata in A Major, Op. 101; Brahms’ Six Piano Pieces, Op. 118; a selection from Kurtág’s Játékok; and Schumann’s Études symphoniques. (pcmsconcerts.org, 215-569-8080)
Mavericks of Minimalism (April 7, Settlement Music School, Queen Village branch). What does minimalism have to say to us today? Network for New Music shows with this program that the style is remarkably durable. Terry Riley’s influential In C is performed, and is given a new companion piece in Hannah Lash’s even more minimally titled C. Also on the docket: a new work by “post-minimalist cross-culturalist” Evan Ziporyn . (networkfornewmusic.org, 215-848-7647)
La bohème (April 26-May 5, Academy of Music). If you, dear traditionalist, have looked at all the innovation and edginess of recent Opera Philadelphia seasons and wondered about an entry point for you, here it is. Puccini’s melodic and emotional score resonates with both novices and aficionados. Voices soar, and then fall tender. It might be the perfect opera.
Here, Opera Philadelphia revives its 2012 production with images of art — Van Gogh, Pissaro — from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Barnes Foundation. Making her Opera Philadelphia debut, soprano and Academy of Vocal Arts alumna Vanessa Vasquez is Mimi. Corrado Rovaris conducts. (operaphila.org, 215-732-8400)
The English Concert in Handel’s Semele (April 16, Annenberg Center). Led by Harry Bicket, the esteemed London period-instrument group makes its Philadelphia debut in Handel’s oratorio. Brenda Rae is Semele and Elizabeth DeShong is Juno/Ino, with the Clarion Choir. (annenbergcenter.org, 215-898-3900)
Brahms Requiem (May 25, Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill). Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem is well-known and very much beloved, but Choral Arts Philadelphia and conductor Matthew Glandorf transform the piece in a tribute to the choir’s late founder, Sean Deibler, who died in 2009. The 40-voice choir will perform An English Requiem in its one-piano, four-hand version with pianists Mark Livshits and Anna Kislitsyna and vocal soloists drawn from the choir. (choralarts.com, 267-240-2586)
Candide (June 20-22, Verizon Hall). Bernstein’s operetta draws the curtain down on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s multiyear exploration of the composer in a semi-staged version by stage director Kevin Newbury. Nézet-Séguin conducts. (philorch.org, 215-893-1999)
Yannick Nézet-Séguin Mann Center debut (June 24, Fairmount Park). Nézet-Séguin has led concerts at the Philadelphia Orchestra’s summer venues in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and in Colorado, but this will be his first time appearing at this fine summer spot in his orchestra’s own backyard.