The musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra were all set to perform on opening night at Carnegie Hall on October 2nd when the stagehands decided to go on strike due a dispute over an education wing set to open in 2014. Never mind that some of those stage hands earn as much, if not more, than the concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the orchestra had no choice but to cancel their appearance. A couple of years ago this would have been the end of the story because what happened next could only be achieved in the hyper-connected world in which we live today. The orchestra decided to take the very bold move of offering a free pop-up concert in their own home: The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The first notices appeared on Facebook and Twitter around 11:30am for a concert at 6:30pm. That’s right; they had less than seven hours to send out the word and find out how many of their fans would drop what they were doing to head to South Broad Street for a concert with an unknown program. In addition to that challenge, the orchestra added another twist by asking people to show up as early as 5:30pm to audition for the chance to conduct the orchestra during the concert.
Pop-up concerts have made the rounds for a number of years, and though they are still popular, they may have run their course. Why? Well, Americans like the unexpected and unique and most pop-ups are staged. Native Philadelphians are perhaps even more jaded because they highly value the genuine. They’ll endlessly defend and cheer for the most ragtag sports team as long as they believe the athletes are giving their best effort, yet that same team will be pelted with boos (or worse) if they appear to give up. The brilliance of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s pop-up concert was that it was genuine and it appeared to be offered from the collective heart of the organization.
As the clock ticked on, social media lit up with posts, shares, and tweets. The Philadelphia Orchestra has over 30,000 likes on its Facebook page and over 7,000 followers on Twitter. Add in the Kimmel Center’s reach of 20,000 via Facebook and Twitter, plus the large following of individual musicians and fans; and the social media engine roared to life. More old fashioned, but still highly effective, email messages and phone calls surely took place as well.
I canceled my plans for the evening and made my way to the Commonwealth Plaza at the Kimmel Center at 5:30pm to find an already large and growing semi-circle of people waiting to audition for the chance to conduct the orchestra later. Associate conductor, Cristian Măcelaru, started them off by demonstrating the example to follow. From there, a wide range of contestants stepped up to the small podium to lead the ensemble with a short excerpt from Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Some were silly, others were serious, and all received applause or laughs.
No one knew what would be included in the program for the evening but it was announced as a family friendly, ninety minute concert with no intermission. Electricity was in the air as people poured into the Kimmel Center and queued up behind the doors to Verizon hall. I headed for the far side entrance to the Conductor Circle seats and was surprised to be the first in line. Tonight’s concert would be focused on fun so it was a good time to bypass acoustically superior seats and get as close to the action as possible.
Some of the musicians still warming up on stage were also fiddling around with their camera phones and all were casually dressed. This was clearly going to be a party atmosphere like no other previous Philadelphia Orchestra concert. I watched with astonishment as people filled the lower levels and continued to pour in to the upper tiers. The orchestra later provided an estimated audience size exceeding 2200. Conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, was greeted with a mighty roar and the orchestra was off to a rousing performance of Tchaikovsky’s Slavonic March. The audience was on its feet in the final notes, and this was only the first piece! The rock concert atmosphere continued throughout the concert with children conducting from their seats and enthusiastic applause after every piece. Not surprisingly, the program was all single movement popular works, but make no mistake; this was not a “pops” concert featuring Broadway hits or movie soundtracks. The orchestra went even further out on a limb with some other twists that engaged the audience; and why not? I’m quite sure that no one expected that they would fill Verizon Hall with such short notice, so why not be daring and try a few other creative presentations? It’s not like anyone could demand their money back from a free concert.
The second experiment was a real-time “audience choice” selection. Nézet-Séguin introduced three opera overtures by Mozart and asked the audience to pick one. After two rounds of voting, the surprising winner was the thematically darkest of the three – Don Giovanni. So much for the preconception that the general public would pick a Looney Tunes favorite – The Marriage of Figaro. This would not be the only expectation shattered that night. For example, though the audience was widely diverse and included many who do not frequent classical music concerts, they were silent, respectful, and devoid of electronic device diversions.
The third of these experiments was the guest conductor idea. Yannick Nézet-Séguin referenced a recent YouTube video in New York as inspiration, but Jeri Lynne Johnson was way ahead of that post and ran an entire “iConduct series” in various locations in Philadelphia throughout the 2012-2013 season. Citizens off the street would take the baton to try their hand at conducting the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra after a very brief introduction from Johnson. This night would be slightly different, with the winner of the challenge held in the Commonwealth Plaza conducting the full orchestra. Nine year old Madeline Church was announced as the winner and when she took the stage after a bit of coaching she appeared to be un-phased by the large audience and daunting task before her. She was warmly received by the orchestra and audience in a moment that will surely be fondly remembered for the rest of her life.
The concert was apparently going to end with Ravel’s most widely known work, Bolero. Not surprising, since it was on the original program for the concert at Carnegie Hall. Starting with the mind blowing repetition of principal percussionist, Christopher Deviney’s snare drum, the work unfolded ever so slowly revealing colors from each section of the orchestra. What was most surprising was the muscularity and definition that emerged from the stage. I was, honestly, not looking forward to this piece but I’ve apparently heard the equivalent of mashed potatoes and what was emerging to me in waves was steak. Adding to my newly minted appreciation for this piece was my proximity to the musicians, once again proving the value of a live performance. There’s simply no way to understand its beauty in a multitasking world.
An unexpected encore brought us to the fourth, and most surprising experiment. Yannick Nézet-Séguin entered the stage with his camera phone aglow and encouraged everyone to take out their phones and record the event with the promise that we’d all tweet and post the results. Small blue rectangles lit up throughout the hall as the orchestra enthusiastically performed Tchaikovsky’s Polonaise. The audience was clearly thrilled to be able share the experience and, perhaps, even boast about it to their friends.
The audience followed Nézet-Séguin instructions as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube updates streamed in with posts about the concert, including pictures and videos from almost every angle in Verizon Hall. Even more surprising were the videos taken by the musicians themselves. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be sitting in the orchestra, here’s a view taken by Joseph Conyers from the bass section, and here is the view from the low brass section by principal tuba player, Carol Jantsch. You can also see her taking this video in my own video. Yes, the sound is not very good, it’s shaky and out of focus, but I took it for the same reason as almost everyone else who was there. Simply because it was fun to be able to share the experience:
Thanks to the Philadelphia Orchestra! The plan to hold the concert in Philadelphia with so little notice was brilliant, and its execution was heartfelt, exciting, fun, and genuine.
Photo Credits: David Cohen / Sharon Torello