Band on the Run

New players. New hall. New problems. Old audience. And as the Philadelphia Orchestra reaches for solutions, will it lose all that’s made it great?

IT IS SOMEWHAT SURPRISING THAT ED RENDELL, WHO SEES THE ORCHESTRA AND ITS NEW HALL AS THE "KEYSTONES" TO HIS AVENUE OF THE ARTS PROJECT, HASN’T ADEQUATELY EXPLAINED TO HIS CONSTITUENTS EXACTLY WHY THE orchestra is so crucial to Philly’s business community; he may feel that after making the same play for the Convention Center and the riverboats of chance, he’ll be seen as crying wolf. But believe him — it is. When Rendell speaks publicly about the orchestra’s role on the Avenue, however, he usually refers to its "great tradition" and its status as the city’s "cultural ambassador."

If he mentions bottom-line factors, it’s always in the larger context of the Avenue of the Arts. Only the orchestra playing in its new hall, he says, can make the Avenue more than the sum of its parts. Only the orchestra can achieve the vaunted "critical mass," a quasi-architectural, quasi-economic, quasi-Zen term planners use to describe the good karma they think the Avenue will create, the exhilaration that will come from knowing that one is at the center of things.

Why doesn’t Rendell venture beyond the "great tradition" argument? Though sound, it is stale. And as the orchestra board has discovered over the past eight years, it is utterly unconvincing to the city’s deep-pocket patrons. The argument was first made when the orchestra board officially kicked off its fund-raising drive for the new hall in November 1986. The conventional wisdom that had reigned since 1980, when Riccardo Muti took charge — that bad acoustics at the Academy were reason enough to justify leaving — was abandoned.

It’s not that Muti’s argument was wrong. The Academy’s acoustics were bad for orchestral performance when it was built, and were further curdled a few decades back when concrete was poured under the stage to support the installation of a pipe organ. Ormandy and his successors have recorded on the road, or in the unheated basketball court of Fairmount Park’s Memorial Hall, where musicians sometimes play in full-length winter coats. Still, when it comes to dissing the Academy’s acoustics, Philadelphians have refused to believe. This doesn’t surprise many acousticians, who have known for decades that most people naturally believe that a visually beautiful concert space must also be aurally beautiful. The illusion is enhanced at the Academy by the way its steep, wraparound configuration creates in its audiences a feeling of being incredibly close to, and intimate with, performers. These things, combined with the fact that many of the new hall’s would-be patrons grew up on the Academy and felt strongly attached to the space, meant that Muti’s lament about he Academy’s ruinous acoustics got him nowhere.