For the overture to Mozart and other works, Saturday’s Philadelphia Orchestra audience was loud and restless. And came Pierre and the Wolf, and the dynamic in the room changed.
Children are the best critics. They’ll let you know in real time how you’re doing, and it was heartwarming this Saturday morning to see orchestral music dominate yet another generation. There was not a flicker of the bird (flute) or grating growl of the grandfather (bassoon) in Prokofiev’s score that did not produce an audible response from the crowd.
Returning from pandemic hibernation, the orchestra reinstated its opening gala, subscription concerts and other activities. But family gigs took longer to return. Saturday was the first live family concert in over 2.5 years. And while the orchestra has done other things for the kids during the pandemic, nothing has the impact of a full orchestra live on stage. We have missed these concerts terribly.
The return, however, brought both satisfaction and regret. Pierre and the Wolf was a reminder that some things should never change. The 1936 work introduces children to the orchestra before they have a chance to realize it, and none of that power has faded.
This was especially evident in the return of Michael Boudewyns’ lovely, handcrafted version. David Bowie once recorded this piece with the Philadelphians, sounding velvety and majestic. Here, Boudewyns appears as the bubbly uncle of someone who decides to tell the story with improvised props found in the attic five minutes ago.
But you couldn’t help but wish one thing had changed in the last 31 months. If this band really hopes to be part of the majority black city that is, after all, in the name of the whole, they’ll have to look to their current audience and do something drastic. I didn’t have a view of every seat in Verizon Hall, but in three long scans I couldn’t see a single black child.
The orchestra cares about modeling talent on stage so kids can imagine themselves one day on it. This is one of the reasons the winners of the Albert M. Greenfield Student Competition are featured at these concerts. The future was easy to imagine in the hands of William Ge and Beatrice Chen.
Ge, 15, playing Mozart’s first movement Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, was particularly fluid while gilding the music with patches of interpretive individualization. Chen this summer got a spot at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, while continuing his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
She had the most difficult task at this concert. The Paganini/Silverthorne Sonata for the great alto isn’t a great piece of music, and yet she still managed to bring out her singing qualities and brilliance.
Lina González-Granados was another source of inspiration. She was back in town after finishing her tenure as assistant conductor of the orchestra and, in Mozart, Opening of the Marriage of Figaro, displayed his usual mix of command and easy reporting.
About the noise from the public. Yes, it was entertaining. But it is important to remember that some noises at a children’s concert mean something positive – parents explaining the music to children, spontaneous laughter and chatter. A special-needs listener to my left was loud enough to catch the eye of the orchestra members on stage. For me, these vocalizations were the sounds of success: total commitment. Next time the orchestra may wish to distribute the twisted balloons after the concert (although you may hear the periodic pops as a form of audience-participating percussion).
The orchestra could of course build its visual world into these presentations, but there is real wisdom in having the stage bare, save the set and, by Pierre and the Wolf, just Boudewyns and a small set of accessories. To better focus on the music. Here, patrick williams was the bird, its suave flute sound represented by Boudewyns brandishing a transparent yellow scarf on the end of a stick. Peter SmithThe raucous oboe of was the duck, taking on the physical form of a feather duster. The hungry wolf (menacing horns!) has been reduced to baggage.
If that sounds quaint and low-end, it was. Beautifully so. Antidote to modern life, this Pierre and the Wolf. And if anyone thinks that pales next to the dopamine-releasing jolts of video games and other technology in our children’s lives, families walking the sidewalk are still talking about the concert several blocks away suggest the opposite.
Philadelphia Orchestra family concerts continue with holiday concert Dec. 10; a program built around Grieg’s Peer Gynt on February 11; and a program on composer Florence Price on March 25. Tickets cost between $22 and $56. philorch.org215-893-1999.