For the first time in 60 years, the Philadelphia Orchestra came back to perform at Longwood Gardens. They were last there in 1941 when the fabled Eugene Ormandy came with the orchestra just prior to having his tonsils out.This time the orchestra came with no rain date and a refund policy, which is scary for an outdoor concert. However, Longwood put out the red carpet, building them a sheltered platform in the main fountain garden like the one they built for the Kennett Symphony Orchestra for one special concert.
There were 3,000 tickets for sale, ranging in price from $30 to $150 and by 2 p.m. there were 600 left. By show time, there were 75. One member of the audience said her ticket, bought at 4 p.m., had been marked down to half the price. The orchestra lucked out on the weather as it rained at 2 and at 4 p.m. and then settled down for pleasant weather for the evening audience, although it was a little warm for the musicians, all of whom seemed to having bad hair days in the heat.
When the Philadelphia Orchestra travels like this, their large instruments are packed in metal steamer trunks, which were lined up on the sides of the stage, looking rather like a row of porter potties. I was seated in the second row, which is great for viewing, but not the optimum spot for listening. From this vantage point one got a marvelous view of the conducting techniques of Associate Conductor Rossen Milanov. His movements are very abrupt, almost robotic, often with is entire body involved.
His left hand trails through the air while his right hand is often a fist jabbing at various sections of the orchestra, but there is never any question as to exactly what Milanov wants the musicians to do. Then when the piece has been finished, the beaming smile he bestows on them is infectious.
After playing the "Star Spangled Banner," the orchestra began with the overture to "Candide" by Bernstein which they played both very precisely and at breakneck speed. This was followed by "Capriccio Espagnol, Op. 34" by Rimsky-Korsakov, which was played beautifully, particularly the well-known and loved "Scene and Gypsy Song." The orchestra was particularly impressive with their lightening quick transitions. The well-known waltz from "The Sleeping Beauty, Op.66" by Tchaikovsky was sweetly sweeping, finishing with satisfied smiles on the musicians.
Musorgsky's "A Night on Bald Mountain" gave the strings a vigorous workout, showing off their ability to turn on a dime to head in a new direction of tone and sound. The big piece of the evening was Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess." The orchestra got all the notes right, but they did not seem to understand the music, playing slowly when it should have been fast and loudly when more definition was needed. It lacked oomph. It was like a foreigner speaking English accenting all the wrong syllables. After a slight delay the orchestra played their signature song, "The Stars and Stripes Forever," as an encore.
As Milanov charmingly explained, "We are used to three curtain calls before the encore," and they had gotten only two. The music was followed by a shortened version of the colored fountain displays and the spectacular fireworks for which Longwood is famous.
Several members of a group of people from Philadelphia said they came because, like most orchestras, they are trying to expand their audiences. Milanov was highly complimentary of Longwood Fardens and said he hoped they would be back.