The music is enough for some people. Others like a helping hand.
Or so the Philadelphia Orchestra thinks these days. The orchestra is heavily invested in the idea that we live in a visual age, and that — what with the orchestra playing movie scores live to film and mounting semi-staged productions — audiences need their eyes to confirm what their ears are telling them.
The orchestra's current Barnes/Stokowski Festival is all that, but it is also more. The two-week presentation of concerts and other events is the brainchild of conductor Stéphane Denève, and the first of two orchestral programs in the festival opened Thursday night in Verizon Hall, pitting art collector Albert C. Barnes (played by actor David Bardeen) against Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski (Nicholas Carriere).
Denève in light narration and playwright Didi Balle through her dramatic script argued for parallels: Two progressive firebrands, each with his own take on populism, with a time and a city in common. Barnes made his first big collecting move in 1912, the same year Stokowski began curating a special orchestral sound that would endure for decades.
For all the sparks that flew between the characters on stage, Balle's script left the audience the mental space to play the irresistible parlor game of looking for another kind of parallel: the one between music and art. Denève has made the point that impressionism in music is different from impressionism in art, but he allows that there is a "shared aesthetic." And so when the violins in the Chausson Poème played a particularly feathery tremolo, you couldn't help but notice echoes in the brushstrokes of Renoir's La Sortie du Conservatoire, which was projected (if dimly) onto two screens above the stage.
Does the face of one of the young women in the painting not stir a pang in the same way as the particularly fragile chord progression at the end of the Chausson?
Through the dialogues and monologues of Barnes, Stokowski, artist and Barnes confidant William Glackens, and a newspaper reporter (both played by Paul Schoeffler), the unfolding exposition finds connections between these two still-looming Philadelphians and fills out a certain amount of their artistic philosophy, shared or not.
Barnes' interest in African American culture was highlighted by the sound of Curtis Institute soprano Lindsey Reynolds in "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," and organist Peter Richard Conte in Bach reminded us of Stokowski's beginnings as an organist.
The orchestra's concertmaster, David Kim, was the soloist in the Chausson; despite the work's light orchestration, his presence fell short. Stokowski's saturated string sound was gorgeously evident in his arrangement of Adoramus te (attributed, perhaps erroneously, to Palestrina), not played here since Stokowski led it in 1969.
La Mer stood on its own, with little theatrical treatment around it. Denève says impressionism in music is specific rather than vague, and he is right. Especially so in Debussy. The vastness of the sea, the sparkle of light on the waves (harp), shapes and colors moving beneath the surface — they were all there. I was particularly taken with Denève's sense of yearning in the third movement's main theme.
There was another character hanging around on stage. Like a ghost felt but never acknowledged, Wolfgang Sawallisch was very present. It was he who in the 1990s revived something of the Stokowski sound — less fat, to be sure, than it had been decades ago, but every bit as homogeneous and single-mindedly disciplined.
In his tenure here, Sawallisch recorded a disk of Stokowski orchestrations, and though Denève's concept of sound wasn't as generously deep or resonant as Sawallisch's in Debussy's "The Sunken Cathedral" or the Bach Tocatta and Fugue in G Minor, there was a twist on stage hiding in plain sight: two orchestra music directors occupying the same place at the same time. Stokowski the actor had on stage a desk that was unremarkable unless you happened to know (as a little bird told me) that it once belonged to Sawallisch himself.