A 30th Party With Sparks

Summer 2006 marks the 30th anniversary of the Mann Center for the Performing Arts and the ninth year of Peter Lane's stewardship as president and CEO.

Formerly administrator of the New York Pops and a professional double bass player, Lane has revitalized the Mann Center's artistic offerings, administrative and financial structure, and is now tackling a major renovation of the venue's physical plant. The Mann Center no longer functions exclusively as the summer home for the Philadelphia Orchestra, but instead presents three weeks of orchestra concerts followed by a wide variety of pop, rock, world music, folk performances and a large number of children's programs.

After sampling two recent Philadelphia Orchestra concerts just before the season wound down, I experienced many of the positive changes that have been implemented this season. The physical renovations are clearly a work in progress. Access to the performance area has been improved with the addition of the PECO Plaza and a new box office, though the educational center and new restrooms are not as yet completed.

The center's staff radiates a new tone. Ushers and parking-lot attendants were unfailingly gracious, members of the orchestra introduced both concerts in a friendly and accessible manner, and one program was followed by an autograph session featuring six orchestra members.

Both programs presented by the Philadelphians were well-conceived and superbly performed. Andrew Litton, music director of the Dallas Symphony for more than a decade, conducted a beautiful program of orchestral "standards," including the "Festive Overture, Opus 96," by Dmitri Shostakovich; the "Piano Concerto in A Minor, Opus 16," by Edvard Grieg; and the often performed "Symphony No. 5 in E Minor," by Pyotr Ilyich Tschaikovsky.

Joining the orchestra for the Grieg concerto was Stewart Goodyear, born in Toronto, and trained at Juilliard and the Curtis Institute. Even with only the minimal two-hour morning rehearsal, Maestro Litton, pianist Goodyear and the Philadelphia Orchestra presented an elegant concert.

The conductor utilized an energetic, clear and decisive baton technique, and the ensemble gave him exactly the performance he requested of them. Goodyear demonstrated a fine lyrical touch, in addition to expressive and powerful keyboard work.

The performance was greatly enhanced by the orchestra's return to the American seating plan, placing both violin sections adjacent to each other, and the cellos and basses on the extreme right side of the stage. The violins played with the expected rich and sonorous ensemble Philadelphia sound, and the bass lines were clear and well-defined. The orchestra sounded rich and full without being too strident, particularly in the very loud and brass heavy fourth movement of the Tschaikovsky symphony.

Three days later, I attended a Jewish-themed concert, in memory of Fredric Mann. Expertly conducted by artistic director Rossen Milanov, the orchestra — once again arranged in the American seating plan — presented two works by Jewish composers: Ernest Bloch's "Proclamation" and Leonard Bernstein's "Jeremiah Symphony," as well as "Overture on Hebrew Themes," by Sergei Prokofiev; and the "Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1," played with great energy, long lyrical lines and almost flirtatious charm by Israeli pianist Alon Goldstein.

Both the Bloch "Proclamation" — featuring principal trumpet David Bilger playing especially sweetly — and the Bernstein symphony — with Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham singing the excerpt from the biblical book of Lamentations — are full of uniquely Jewish musical themes.

Bloch utilized shofar calls in the solo trumpet line, and Bernstein borrowed traditional Ashkenazic Haftorah cantillations that he undoubtedly heard in his Boston-based Conservative synagogue.

Shaham possesses a magnificent voice, and she brought her idiomatic Hebrew and operatic flare to a dramatic interpretation of the solo.

Both concerts were sparsely attended, a significant disappointment for the management teams of the Mann and the orchestra. However, neither the Frederic Mann memorial nor the Jewish musical themes on the program were marketed intensively to the Jewish community.

Along with the projected improvements in the physical plant, we must hope that Lane and his colleagues find effective ways of encouraging Philadelphians to sample the rich musical treasures performed at the Mann with such skill and beauty. 



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