Philadelphia Orchestra plays on, despite Carnegie cancellation

Unfazed by the cancellation of the Philadelphia Orchestra's scheduled season opener at Carnegie Hall, the symphony throws open its doors for a free concert at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.

Pete Checchia/The Philadelphia Orchestra.
Nine-year-old Madeline Church won the honor to conduct The Philadelphia Orchestra following a spirited competition with other would-be maestros leading a group of Orchestra musicians, Oct. 2.

I love this.

It’s Day 2 of the government shutdown. Obamacare has begun lurching along. In Syria, the extremist threat grows, although now in the background. In New York City, a stagehands’ union strike forces cancellation of what could be a moment of respite – the Philadelphia Orchestra’s season-opening gala concert at Carnegie Hall. The players could stay home and watch “Modern Family,” but no. The symphony, seemingly a master of the moment, instead goes to its orchestral home at the Kimmel Center and throws open the doors to the public, who fill the hall to capacity for a free show.

There’s Tchaikovsky. There’s Ravel. There’s Mozart. This is preceded by a vigorous pre-concert “conductor competition” outside, which has a bespectacled 9-year-old winning the podium as guest conductor for an excerpt from William Tell Overture mid-concert.

Carnegie Hall be damned. This group is going to be heard. Just last summer, their China tour flight delayed hours on the tarmac in Beijing, a string quartet of their players treated fellow passengers on the plane to an impromptu playing of Dvorak. The vaunted classical orchestra of Eugene Ormandy, now with Yannick Nezet-Seguin at the baton, gets out of the house often, touring hometown venues as pedestrian as the Naval Yard, Penn’s Landing and Macy’s.

But that’s not the point. This day was the kind of day where current events and bureaucratic constraints seemed to converge, really, leaving people unable to operate, given the uncertainty and unfairness and burden. The owner of one privately-owned restaurant near Independence Hall explained on the radio that the government shut them down, citing their relationship as a government concession, leaving longstanding private reservations, parties and regular customers in the lurch. This happens sometimes, where circumstance – be it a bad economy or strike you can’t prevent, or troubles with family or school or the next door neighbors – makes it hard to move. Sometimes it’s on a world events scale. Sometimes it’s minute.

The orchestra folks have had their own struggles of late, trying – like everyone else -- to hold together when the economy doesn’t cooperate. And just like everyone else, they must at times feel like they can hardly play.

“You can do whatever you want to do,” is such a cliché in America that we rarely stop to think about it. About whether it’s really the case. And of course it’s not. Not really. You maybe can do something, but you certainly don’t have everything it takes to do whatever you want – the right DNA or financial backing or patience or even time or sustained interest or willpower. And then there are the outside impediments, be they in Washington, the Middle East, Carnegie Hall, or your own City Hall. Not being able to do whatever we think we want to do, then, is probably more the norm than the exception.

There’s another cliché – “bloom where you’re planted,” and this might be a little more realistic. I think this is what the orchestra showed Philly on that beautiful but burdened early fall day. Whatever the distressing political or economic or international climate, even though their audience was in flip-flops and their hall hastily-filled and their gate one of smiles not sponsorships: They took what they did have and they played. Carnegie Hall can wait.

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