Orchestra tunes up for Muti, outshines opera, ballet

The pride and joy of the cultural scene in the City of Brotherly Love has always been the Philadelphia Orchestra.

It was Leopold Stokowski, the orchestra's third music director, who created and nurtured the ''Philadelphia sound.''

After Stokowski's 23 years, his successor, Eugene Ormandy, zealously protected that sound for 48 years.

And now Riccardo Muti, the flamboyant new music director, is trying to reshape the orchestra into something altogether different, though it is too early at this point to know what his ideas really are.

But Philadelphia's international renown as a musical town is limited to that fabulous orchestra. The Opera Company of Philadelphia offers some eight or so productions a season, with former New York City Opera artistic director Julius Rudel often in the pit. Most of the talent, however, is imported. And gone are the days when the Metropolitan Opera used to do one-night run-outs to Philadelphia with premiere casts.

There was a major attempt afoot recently to build a new concert hall for the orchestra and turn its current home, the Academy of Music, back into an opera house.

It was a bold bid to create a thriving arts complex, but it failed for several reasons. A small but important 20-foot strip of land needed to set the concert hall back off the main street was not obtainable. That alone would have made the entire project collapse. But underlying that issue was the unspoken fear that Philadelphia could not support an arts center of this magnitude. The ballet and opera companies are not in the most robust financial condition. Their combined seasons could not have filled the Academy of Music with the orchestra in its own home.

And though the city is big on chamber music, those concerts tend to happen more on college campuses rather than the theater district, where the academy is located.

The Curtis Institute offers some of the finest conservatory training in the country today, with an illustrious faculty and a fine accumulation of renowned graduates. The Philadelphia Orchestra almost considers the institute as its farm team. The Philadelphia Academy of the Vocal Arts has encouraged and nurtured singers through the years as well.

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