Features: The Unfinished Symphony

BOB HOLMES RAISED the binoculars to his eyes. He had been a college music teacher for two decades and, after years of living in North Carolina, had acquired a honeyed Southern accent, but he hadn’t lost his love for the music that came from his hometown — the rich sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Twice a year he returned to the city to hear the orchestra play.

Holmes adjusted his binoculars. It was summer in Philadelphia, not always the most comfortable season. The humidity in the Mann Music Center seemed to intensify as the concert progressed. What was that? — that movement in the back of the brass section? Holmes focused the glasses on the spot. He hadn’t been mistaken — there was something happening there. In the midst of the concert, as the music played on around them, members of the world-renowned Philadelphia Orchestra were passing photographic slides back and forth among themselves, looking ‘at the slides with the aid of a hand-held viewer.

That curious event took place in 1981. This summer Holmes returned, and, during one of the season’s earliest concerts, he watched as an orchestra member walked on and was seated after the conductor’s opening downbeat. But later that same week Holmes saw an onstage gaffe he considered unforgivable. As the musicians rearranged themselves for a partial orchestra piece, one female player rose to leave. When she crossed the stage, a male player reached out and patted her on the rear end.

Holmes did not use many more of his 1982 series tickets.

"We’re not renewing for next year," he says.

For listeners and players alike, the summer season is more leisurely and the discipline of the regular concert hall, relaxed. Occasional lapses are tolerated, so long as they are minor infractions limited to warm-weather performances.

But Holmes’s complaints are about more than onstage manners. He says the concerts he attended this past summer were filled with "wrong entrances, bad notes, ragged and out-of-tune playing .., that you just don’t expect from Philadelphia." What’s more, some concertgoers have begun complaining of similar lapses during the orchestra’s regular Academy season.