Putting the best-ever foot forward at season-opening concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Kimmel Center means something less classical than usual for the Philadelphia Orchestra on Wednesday and Thursday. A semi-pops Gershwin/Bernstein repertoire replaces the Tchaikovsky, Ravel, and other composers who would typically show off the famous Philadelphia sound.
Both concert programs draw on what he did not grow up with in French-Canadian Montreal: Hollywood, Broadway, and Tin Pan Alley. Wednesday at Carnegie Hall has Bernstein's suite to the film score of On the Waterfront, Symphonic Dances From "West Side Story," and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with pianists Lang Lang and Chick Corea. The opening slot for the Carnegie season reaffirms the Philadelphia Orchestra's New York presence dating back to 1904.
On Thursday at the Kimmel, a similar program without Lang Lang features pianist Harmony Zhu, age 11, winner of the Albert M. Greenfield Student Competition and now a Juilliard School student. She plays part of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1.
Immediately after that at the Kimmel (Oct. 6, 7, and 8), the orchestra will be more in its element with Emanuel Ax playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 27 and a new work by Wayne Oquin titled Resilience with organist Paul Jacobs. But walking on the light side during certain parts of the season is happening with the best of them. Not so long ago, the New York Philharmonic played live accompaniment to the film Babe (the one about the pig).
"I think the Philadelphia Orchestra has embraced a broader definition of our repertoire — as well as the industry as a whole," said Jeremy Rothman, vice president of artistic planning. "These are fantastic scores that deserve full hearing."
Obviously, the 100th year of Leonard Bernstein — who graduated from the Curtis Institute and tried out Broadway shows in Philadelphia — is one motivation behind the program, and Bernstein had strong roots in Gershwin. Rothman also points out that more serious Bernstein symphonies, such as his Symphony No. 3 ("Kaddish"), which contemplates the nature of religious beliefs, aren't rousing season openers.
Though lighter-weight concerts can look like a walk in the park for the orchestra, they have hidden challenges. Older musicians recall a time when Gershwin's An American in Paris required an outside trumpeter to be hired for the bluesy solo in the middle of the piece.
Bernstein's vernacular-tinged concert works can sound starchy when not played by U.S. orchestras — or at least ones not led by the composer himself. Some of the worst Gershwin recordings came out of Europe in decades past. Now, some of the most alert performances of both composers come out of England and France.
Or French Canada.
"When conducting Mendelssohn's Scotch Symphony, do I attach great importance to pictures of the Scottish coastline? " he said. "The film helps you know the environment, and how New York was a little rough and raw in that period. But the poetry has to be between the notes and not about the imagery. … At some point the music has to be taken for pure music."
The more enterprising meetings of soloist and repertoire are: