Philadelphia Orchestra offers impressive opener

Despite labor talks, concert goes on

MusicReview

September 23, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

PHILADELPHIA - Applause broke out as soon as musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra started filing onstage Tuesday night at the Kimmel Center, packed with dressy, champagne-lubricated patrons gathered to celebrate the opening of the season. Forty-eight hours earlier, it looked as if the players would be outside the theater, carrying picket signs. The sense of relief was palpable.

A last-minute agreement averted a strike, when musicians and management extended the deadline on contract talks until Oct. 21 (saving the orchestra's nationally televised broadcast from Carnegie Hall Oct. 6).

Those negotiations had been anything but cheery. Early on, both sides engaged PR consultants and established Web sites to spin their positions, leading to all sorts of bad blood. (A media blackout is part of the new "play and talk" arrangement.)

The principal issue, of course, is money. Like several other major orchestras, this one is trying to wipe out deficits.

Things are just as dicey at three of the other "Big Five" orchestras - the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra and Chicago Symphony, where "play and talk" situations are making it possible to open seasons, but only postponing the final, tough stages of hammering out a new contract.

The last of this eminent quintet, the Boston Symphony, still has two years left on its current contract, which has become a goal for the others. The Boston players have a $108,000 annual minimum salary, the highest in the land. The rest of the Big Five want parity. (Cleveland's minimum is about $100,000, New York's $103,000, Chicago's $104,000, Philadelphia's $105,000.)

In the end, expect a good deal of give and ache, as the eternal conflict between economic reality and artistic excellence continues in these orchestras, not to mention all the others in the country - including our BSO - where uncomfortable choices are being faced.

During his opening remarks Tuesday, the Philadelphia Orchestra's board chairman, Richard Smoot, never mentioned a word about the negotiations. But when he praised the musicians for their "dedication to sustaining this orchestra as the fabulous ensemble that it is," his words set off an ovation that went on a nice long while.

It's probably unwise to read too much into that demonstration, but it sounded like a clear statement to both sides from the public: Don't let anything hurt this institution. And when, a few minutes later, Christoph Eschenbach launched the orchestra's 105th season - his second as music director - you couldn't possibly miss the value of that institution.

A ripsnorting charge through the Prelude to Act 3 of Wagner's Lohengrin quickly reaffirmed the strengths of the ensemble, especially the luster and responsiveness of the strings.

This being a gala opener, there was a gala star - soprano Renee Fleming, who sang the sublime Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss. Her top register sounded a little constricted, but the rest of the voice was luscious. More importantly, Fleming really burrowed into the texts and conveyed their leave-taking sentiments affectingly.

Eschenbach had the ensemble relishing this music; a few uneven details proved a minor matter. One of many memorable moments was the visceral way the first chord of Im Abendrot emerged, as if rising from deep within the earth to taste the fading autumn sun.

A Strauss encore, Cacilie, found singer, conductor and orchestra confidently riding the same expressive crest.

The evening closed with Dvorak's Symphony No. 8, which Eschenbach sculpted impressively, giving each shade of color and mood its due, maintaining the score's underlying tension without skimping a bit on sweetness. Here, the famous Philadelphia strings poured out unreservedly, matched by some lovely work in the woodwinds and mostly brilliant efforts by the brass.

A month from now, if all goes well, contractual differences will be resolved, so the already rewarding collaboration between Eschenbach and this venerable orchestra can continue to develop in uninterrupted melody.

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