REVIEW: Philadelphia Orchestra’s Opening Night

Delightful if not a tad anxiety-ridden.

Before the last number of Wednesday’s season-opening concert, the Philadelphia Orchestra‘s incomparable music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, told the audience assembled in Kimmel’s Verizon Hall that it was more important now than ever to spread the word about the excellence of the ensemble.

Alas, it was a not-so-subtle sub-theme that filled the evening, that the Orchestra’s musicians were back in negotiations and that they were currently working without a contract. Several members of the organization, ranging from musicians to administration, spoke of these negotiations after the opening number, which was a ravishing interpretation of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor.” In retrospect, the tune was an eerie prelude to talks about the Orchestra’s future.

It was not long ago that the Orchestra’s bankruptcy and musicians’ pensions made national news, which was not helped by a series of New York Times pieces that highlighted how the organization “tried to avoid” pension payments. It was a painful time for the Orchestra and for the arts in Philadelphia. However, with the arrival of Nézet-Séguin, there was a true feeling that the organization was making a dramatic revival. That’s all been true, but even as the Orchestra celebrated a well-received performance during the World Meeting of Families and the papal visit last weekend, the audience was reminded that the musicians all volunteered their time to perform during those festivities.

Doom and gloom aside, the ensemble demonstrated on Wednesday evening why they are widely considered the best in the country: After the Bach, they performed a lovely rendition of Debussy’s “Clair de lune,” followed by an exciting announcement: The Orchestra recently filmed an exclusive performance to celebrate the 75th anniversary re-release of Disney’s Fantasia, which will be seen in cinemas this November.

The ensemble then performed several signature songs from the animated classic. They started with Dukas’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (no Mickey Mouse to be seen), and ended with quite a unique spectacle: a nearly perfectly syncopated performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” to the famous animations from Fantasia which were projected on big screens above the ensemble.

This was something that the Orchestra did a number of years ago during a Tchaikovsky Festival at the Academy of Music, and, as Nézet-Séguin told the audience, he swore he’d never do it again because of how extremely difficult it is. Nevertheless, if you weren’t smiling from ear to ear throughout the performance, you really had to check your pulse. It was simply remarkable.