Philadelphia Voices, which received its glowing world première tonight is the latest in Tod Machover’s collaborative City Symphonies. Each, by necessity, is one of a kind, reflecting the particularities of a place both in history and at this moment in time. Machover is committed to breaking the fourth wall of theatre and bringing the city into the concert hall by hosting jam sessions, panel discussions and workshops, eventually collecting 8000 recordings reflecting the soundscape of the city. MIT’s media lab enabled him to bring all this together.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Hans van der Woerd
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Hans van der Woerd

The work is as its origins suggest: plural, multi-layered, a sensory overload reflective of the bustling energies of the sixth-largest city in America. Westminster Symphonic Choir were joined by young people from Keystone State Boychoir, Pennsylvania Girlchoir, and Sister Cities Girlchoir. Many of these choruses are devoted to giving underserved minorities access to music, so the very array of Philadelphia’s vocal power was a fine witness to what the work hoped to encourage: participative democracy.  

What to say about this kaleidoscopic work? It wrought a balance between homage and complaint. The opening – with organ – was massive and epic, hailing the city as America’s great experiment. Later, in “We the People”, with voiceovers from the visitor centers at the various historic sites, there was an amped-up, excitingly-articulated list of Philadelphia firsts (Hospital, newspaper, zoo, bubble gum, circus? Who knew?). There was also in this year inevitable mention of the Super Bowl victory – indeed there was an audio replay of the moment of victory, which elicited spontaneous applause. The political attraction of the work was that Philadelphia was the birthplace of American democracy, and as such, needs to live up to its destiny.

But it wasn’t merely a comforting paean to the city but a commentary on its problems. Libretti for the seven movements were contributed by various people, including high-school students. “We don’t do censorship”, Yannick Nézet-Séguin announced at the start. “We have left their words intact”: a warning of raw language and feelings to come. This was most striking in the bleak fifth movement “My House is Full of Black People”. Anger was most palpable in the scream at its heart, and the shivering potency of the repeated injunction to “listen”.

There was a powerful musical exploration of the word (and idea) of “Philadelphia” in the sixth movement, “Democracy” – all registers and tones, some conflicting and disharmonious, some unified – in sum, an effective portrayal of city tensions. The libretto was uneven in quality, but, the naivety in places was surely one of the points of inviting amateur collaboration. Certainly “Paradise with realism intertwined” was a questionable phrase; Philadelphia is a fine – even a great city, in some reckonings – but nobody could describe it as at all paradisiacal. And “Love, food, art, diversity blended so perfectly” was a bit too tourist-brochure for my tastes.

By contrast, my favourite libretto (and soundscape too) was Jacob Winterstein’s “Block Party”. This was quite wonderfully clever, to the extent of eliciting chuckles of recognition as everyone recognized the mundane features of city life – the over-close neighbors in rowhouses, the cramped parking, the gossipy intimacy of the stoop. His conceit was to imagine a block party for the whole city (and here the music became jazzy), which brought the whole city together. Just as we were settling in to the cosiness of everyone having “a plate (and a place)”, the music – by dint of repetition and growing wildness and dissonance – rendered the words of welcome more and more ambivalent, leaving us closer to dystopia than paradise. It didn’t preach; it made you think.

If the purpose of public art is no more or no less than to dignify a space, then the purpose of public music – music of and in the city – is to dignify it and allow us musically to think about where we have come from. The choruses and orchestra tonight were passionately engaged in the project, and we felt their commitment. The strength of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms lay in its explosive full-volume passages, and also the elegant hush surrounding the imagery of the weaned child, calm and quiet, in Psalm 131. Of a piece was the a capella passage in the finale, where all those many voices achieved a cloistral hush – prayerful psalm melted into silence. This was artfully achieved, down to the resonant last Amen.

The program concluded with Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – a rendition which colorfully represented all the characters and scenes – from a thumping ox-cart to a frenetic witch and the glitteringly stately finale. But tonight, it was all about Philadelphia Voices. Fittingly, the world première left its mark above and beyond anything else.

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