Let the Band Play On

I believe in you, Philadelphia Orchestra

Not long ago, I read a blog opining that one sure way to ascertain whether a city was dying or not was by counting how many people cited “a world-class symphony” when asked to list three great things about the place. The implication being that We’ve got a world class symphony is what you say when you can’t think of anything else that telegraphs that We are a real city and We have culture here. So long as there are other great things to talk about—and in Philly, there are—an orchestra, no matter how great, doesn’t come up as often as Marc Vetri.

So if we don’t tout our musical rep—truly, we have one of the top symphonies in the country—as often as we do our rankings in cheesesteakdom, or baseball, or the number of times we’ve seen Bradley Cooper around town, well, okay then.

The problem, though, is this: We’ve gone so long without talking about the Orchestra that, like the Liberty Bell, we’ve actually forgotten that it’s there.

That’s my theory, anyway. I have several colleagues who believe that the era of the city symphony has passed, that we have outgrown and out-teched the pleasure of sitting in a room and listening to beautiful music written by men who have been dead for 200-plus years. They think it’s time that the city simply finds a new cultural touchstone, a new way to prove that We are real and We have culture here. (As if a Mozart symphony, played live and in person by 100-plus musicians, is so easily replaced.) It’s capitalism, they say. Evolution.

I’ll give them this—there are some crazy obstacles in the Orchestra’s path to survival right now: shrinking endowments, flagging attendance, high labor costs, broken business model, etc, etc. Yesterday, the Inquirer reported that orchestra management recently brought up the possibility of bankruptcy (which ain’t so great for an institution’s reputation, eh, Inky?) as a way to get out of pension obligations.

So clearly, evolution is happening—but I don’t think it’s the phasing-out of classical music. Not yet, anyway. The Orchestra may be hammering its way through the money talks, but they’ve already taken a huge step in the right direction with the new conductor, Yannick Nezet-Seguin. The 36-year-old Canadian conductor with a rock-star reputation could have gone anywhere—lots of orchestras are looking to revamp with a youthful leader—and he chose Philly. (Bonus: He’s cute, too.) And thus far, Philly’s choosing him back: In a guest visit last fall, he sold out Mozart’s Requiem, a good sign for his 2012 official debut.

Another good sign? How Yannick sees his mission: “Music is all around us in our daily lives,” he says. “It’s our great responsibility to … make it not only relevant, but a necessity. The music we perform is profound in its ability to speak across generations. It will only continue to thrive if we create concerts that entertain our audiences, but in a rewarding and honest way.”

In Philly Mag’s March issue, we wrote about the beginnings of a youth movement in the city, highlighting people willing to advance new ideas and to reconsider the sacred cows, that we might revive a little Philly spirit, and greatness in this city. Yannick’s in there, part of this hopeful Philadelphia moment, a crossroads where I think we’ll either save what’s good or choose to forget it.