Celebrating Stokowski with an Audience Choice Concert

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Celebrating Stokowski with an Audience Choice Concert

Post by Ricordanza » Wed Jun 27, 2012 8:45 pm

Leopold Stokowski, who began his tenure as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra one hundred years ago, was a study in contrasts. Was he a charlatan? An innovator? A crowd pleaser? A conductor who challenged his audiences? The answer is: all of the above. On one occasion, Stokowski led the orchestra in an atonal, difficult work by Webern. After the audience indicated its displeasure, he decided to offer an encore--he had the orchestra play the entire piece again! But it was also Stokowski who concluded each season with an “audience choice” concert. On Saturday night, in its final installment of a four-concert tribute to Stokowski, the orchestra offered a highly enjoyable mixed-media concert of favorites selected by audience members via the Internet. All four concerts took place in the orchestra’s former venue, the Academy of Music, and were led by incoming music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Here was the program:

Bach/Stokowski, Toccata and Fugue in D minor
Tchaikovsky, Selections from Suite from The Nutcracker
Dukas, The Sorcerer's Apprentice
Bernstein, Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Stravinsky. Suite from The Firebird
Wagner, "The Ride of the Valkyries," from Die Walküre

Before the music began, the audience was treated to the first example of visual entertainment that was to accompany the orchestral concert. To the left, above the stage, a film image appeared of a Stokowski impersonator, greeting the audience and then introducing the current occupant of the Philadelphia podium, Yannick, whose image appeared to the right and above the stage. After engaging in a little banter, “Stokowski” declared Yannick to be a worthy successor, and “tossed” his baton across the stage to Yannick. It was a little corny, but all in good fun.

In its original version for organ, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor is severe and even scary, evoking images of an ancient, haunted castle. No wonder it’s frequently heard with old-time horror flicks. But in Stokowski’s famous, lush orchestration (if, indeed, it was Stokowski’s orchestration—there is room for debate), the piece is simply grand and awe-inspiring. The Philadelphians can rightly claim that they “own” this piece, and Yannick milked every rich sonority in a sumptuous rendition.

There was a visual element as well—projected images of an organ, and then a castle set on a mountaintop. These images, however, were not projected on a screen but rather on the back of the stage, resulting in a rather fuzzy, washed-out image. But the next two segments had much better visual elements that made the event very special.

While the orchestra played selections from the Nutcracker, corresponding scenes were projected on a screen from the 1940 Disney classic, Fantasia. I had not seen this film since my pre-teen years, and as an adult, I can appreciate even more the amazingly imaginative, gorgeously rendered animation of this film. With the live performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra, expertly synched to the film under Yannick’s direction, it was a delightful experience.

But as wonderful as the dancing flowers were in the Nutcracker, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was even better. Who can forget Mickey Mouse, as the mischievous apprentice, donning the Sorcerer’s hat and turning a broom into his helper to finish his chores? And then the nightmare of trying to stop the broom, smashing it with an ax, only to find the bits and pieces assembling themselves into an army of brooms piling pail upon pail of water into the Sorcerer’s den. Again, I was struck by the tremendous effect and execution of this animation. In today’s computer-generated animation, has this ever been surpassed? And I was so absorbed in the film, I almost forgot to listen to the music. Deservedly popular, by any measure it’s still an enormously appealing musical creation.

No visual effects were provided—or necessary—for the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein’s great music so artfully orchestrated by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal. The orchestra members’ snapping their fingers and shouting “Mambo” still brings a chuckle from many audience members.

The musical highlight for me was a thrilling rendition of one of the greatest orchestral showpieces of all time—the 1919 Suite from The Firebird. Stirring as the “Ride of the Valkyries” may be, it seemed like a comedown from The Firebird. Predictable visual images were projected on the stage during both works, but they did nothing to enhance the performance. The brilliantly played music was enough.

And then, a final audience choice. Yannick asked the audience to choose, via an “applause meter” whether it wanted to hear as an encore Brahms’ Hungarian Rhapsody No. 5 or Johann Strauss’ Radetzky March, a familiar work to anyone who has watched the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s concert. The audience chose the latter and, with Yannick enthusiastically leading the way, clapped rhythmically to accompany the orchestra in this frothy dessert.

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