News Column

A mighty wind 'play-in' at the Kimmel

February 17, 2014

By Peter Dobrin, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Feb. 17--PHILADELPHIA -- The oboist gives her colleagues an "A," and the ensemble tunes. Conductor Vladimir Jurowski, sought by the Metropolitan Opera and orchestras globally, raises his hands, releasing a melodious artifact from Richard Strauss' youth, the Serenade for winds.

It's another performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Except it's not. On this icy Saturday evening, about six dozen amateurs have gathered in the Kimmel Center's Commonwealth Plaza for the first of this season's "play-ins," traversing repertoire alongside a sprinkling of Philadelphia Orchestra members.

This pre-concert play-in, for an oversized woodwind choir, invited area flutists, oboists, clarinetists, hornists, and bassoonists to register, download sheet music, practice, then assemble en masse for single movements from the Strauss, Haydn's Divertimento No. 1 in B-flat Major, and Gounod's Petite Symphonie.

The sound was anything but petite. A certain ear might have picked up a missed entrance or rough intonation, but the organlike sound of multitudes echoing with three-second reverberation under the Kimmel's snow-covered glass barrel vault carried a sweet context. The goal of the play-in -- and of three more this season -- is to create intimate points of contact between the orchestra and its fans.

Jurowski, the tall, baton-thin 41-year-old Russian who has become a favorite orchestra guest, said the stint was hardly a case of stooping to conquer. He pivoted to give cues, and shaped phrases with an elegant devotion that raised amateur night to a new high.

"I didn't really expect the playing to be of such good quality. I think it was really very good. It was not a charity event," he said backstage before leading the all-professional Philadelphians in an all-Rachmaninoff program.

The amateurs -- every age and level of proficiency -- came from Albany, from Downingtown, from all walks of life. Retired nurse Jeanne Beach of Newark, Del., played horn in high school, and upon retiring 37 years later took it up again. "This is thrilling," she said.

Flutist Dawn Krown signed up to play with 17-year-old daughter Rebecca, a bassoonist. Harold I. Litt, a Penn radiologist with 40 years of horn playing under his belt, signed up for a third-horn spot when the orchestra opened online registration because "I didn't want to play the high screaming notes of first horn." On third "you still get to play a lot of lyrical music."

"It's very moving to be playing with all of these people," veteran orchestra flutist David Cramer said after a 45-minute event that included rehearsals with co-principal bassoonist Mark Gigliotti and the piÈce de rÉsistance with Jurowski.

Bridging divides is a role orchestras everywhere are pursuing with urgency. Jurowski has been a visible reformer of image in London, leading stylish children's concerts, merrily knocking back a beer while conducting the end of a Falstaff at Glyndebourne, and casting aside formality to lead period instrument Beethoven at London's Camden Roundhouse rock venue.

Lately, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has invited amateurs to play side by side with the entire orchestra -- something that appeals to the organizer of Saturday's play-in, Philadelphia Orchestra cellist Gloria dePasquale. "I always hear from really dedicated orchestra subscribers that they played an instrument, so this is a way to get involved," she said. "For these people to have 15 minutes playing with Jurowski, that is really powerful. It is something that will stay with them forever."

DePasquale put together the orchestra's first play-in in 2001, and three more are planned at various sites through May: for harps, brass, and double-basses. Registration for the March harp play-in begins Tuesday.

For his part, Jurowski says events like this are exactly what orchestras should be doing.

"It's a great idea and very important in a world ruled by the laws of business and politics to connect classical music with the audience, and to create the sense that music, and classical music in particular, is still playing a role in society -- that it isn't just entertainment, but it has a role uniting people. At the forefront should be the top orchestras and choirs. They should be bringing the music to the people."

Afterward, Jurowski told his impromptu band he would be conducting the famously brawny Chicago Symphony Orchestra in May -- in Strauss' Serenade, no less -- and had now acquired a new yardstick.

"If the playing is not strong enough," he said, "I will tell them: In Philadelphia they have a much larger sound."



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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer (PA)

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