Opening night at the Philadelphia Orchestra often teeters between classical concert and variety show. Audiences come to see and be seen; the musicians display their prodigious talents, but also use the event as an opportunity to let down their hair a bit. I wondered how this hybrid atmosphere would translate to the digital stage now that the orchestra has transitioned all their programming, at least through the end of 2020, to live streaming.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jeff Fusco

If anything, the change in platform allowed the Philadelphians even more latitude in balancing serious musical expectations with a sense of fun and whimsy. Billie Jean King served as the evening’s de facto hostess, recounting warm memories of her time competing in Philadelphia and extolling a collaboration between herself and the orchestra on a version of Elton John’s Philadelphia Freedom (tennis puns abounded throughout). Steve Martin played banjo in an arrangement of his bluegrass tune Rare Bird Alert by principal tuba Carol Jantsch. It was a riot to see cellists, bassists, oboists – and even maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin – approximating bird calls. On a more serious note, the performance began with archival footage of Philadelphia native and musical trailblazer Marian Anderson performing America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee), overlaid with contemporary soprano Angel Blue following in her footsteps.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Angel Blue and The Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jeff Fusco

The program proper – pre-recorded at the outdoor Mann Center for the Performing Arts, with Nézet-Séguin and all non-woodwind players wearing masks – contained hits and misses. Blue offered an impassioned rendition of “D’amor sull’ali rosée” from Il trovatore, with a pliant trill and solid low notes. The overture to Rossini’s Thieving Magpie showed that the orchestra’s legendarily opulent strings could be maintained even with a reduced number of players. Valerie Coleman’s Seven O’Clock Shout, commissioned in April to honor the healthcare heroes of the Coronavirus pandemic, incorporated cheers, claps and stomping feet into a lush tapestry of Americana. The composer, a long-time flutist with the chamber ensemble Imani Winds, provided elegant solos for associate principal flute Patrick Williams and piccolo player Erica Peel.

Lang Lang, who was originally scheduled to perform Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto on opening night, instead recorded a personal greeting from his home in Hangzhou, China. The message included a refined but limp performance of the Quodlibet variation from Bach's Goldberg Variations, notable largely for its heavy dose of physical emoting. The evening ended somewhat anticlimactically with a perfunctory interpretation of Mozart’s Symphony no. 29 in A Major, K201. Yet even with some sluggish sections, it did the heart good to hear the hometown orchestra make music again, after many months of silence.