This season marks the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein and we celebrate all year long, with works for stage, screen, and concert hall by the legendary American composer beginning with the adored and pioneering West Side Story. Follow the New World’s most famous star-crossed lovers from timeless hits like “Tonight,” “Maria,” and “Somewhere” (with lyrics by the then-unknown Stephen Sondheim). The Philadelphia Orchestra will be onstage with a cast of talented Broadway vocalists, drawing talent from the success of Bernstein’s MASS in 2015. This is Bernstein’s complete score, in all its breathless, nuanced—and ultimately heartbreaking—beauty.
This is a program of quintessential American music. Gershwin, the leading American composer of the Jazz Age, drew his inspiration from music halls and vaudeville. This is no more apparent than in his charming, jazzy Promenade and the rip-roaring Piano Concerto in F, performed with brio by our returning soloist and Gershwin specialist Jon Kimura Parker. Dvořák, on his visit to America in the 1890s, drew inspiration from folk songs and spirituals and incorporated original themes based on these melodies into his works. On the podium is James Gaffigan, one of the most important young American conductors today. Philadelphian Samuel Barber went on to become one of the most prominent musical figures in developing a new American romantic style.
An extraordinary opportunity to hear our music director not only as conductor, but also as chamber musician. Yannick will be at the keyboard for Elgar’s haunting Piano Quintet. “I’m an advocate and champion of that piece,” he says. A “best of” treasury of Handel’s sunny Water Music, written for an outdoor concert on the Thames, opens the second half of the program. Storm clouds gather over the North Sea as we conclude with Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from the most famous of English operas, set in the Suffolk fishing village that was also the composer’s home.
Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla has taken the symphonic world by storm; she was just 29 years old when she became music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony in 2016. (The Guardian: Her “combination of precision, poise and power is remarkable.”) Hear what all the well-deserved excitement is about as she makes her Philadelphia Orchestra debut. Pianist Menahem Pressler also made an important debut here in Philadelphia: After fleeing Nazi Germany with his family, he gave his first American performances with Eugene Ormandy in 1947 at the age of 23. In the 70 years since, he’s toured the world as a leading soloist and founder of the revered Beaux Arts Trio. Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is based on one of his own songs, an ethereal depiction of a child’s vision of paradise. Heavenly!
The poet W.H. Auden captured the mood of an uneasy generation with his post-war The Age of Anxiety, a work that inspired Bernstein’s Second Symphony, a musical dialogue among four strangers searching for happiness in an unsettled world. At least one of them finds “the core of faith,” said Bernstein, “which is what one is after—and what I’m after in every work I ever write.” Bernstein himself was at the piano for the premiere; our soloist is the daring and dashing Jean-Yves Thibaudet, “a musician with fearless, flawless fingers” (The West Australian). Yannick compares the tortured genius of Bernstein with that of Schumann with the latter’s flowing Symphony No. 4, ending with the passionate frenzy of Richard Strauss’s Don Juan.
Grammy-winner and Artist-in-Residence Hilary Hahn returns to Verizon Hall with a 20th-century masterpiece: Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, written as the Russian Revolution swirled in 1917. Maestro Denève offers another Philadelphia premiere from Guillaume Connesson, his Flammenschrift (Flaming Letters), a tribute to German music. Equally worthy of tribute: Richard Strauss’s spiritual Death and Transfiguration and Ravel’s whirling La Valse, described by the composer as “dancing on the edge of a volcano.”