Philadelphia Orchestra Celebrates 100 Years

Highlights of season include Beethoven's rarely performed Missa Solemnis.

The Philadelphia Orchestra will be celebrating the season of its centenary, beginning Sept. 19, with star-studded concerts and several premieres, including new works by Richard Danielpour and Roberto Sierra.

The orchestra's 100th Birthday Concert, on Nov. 16, will be recorded, and there are plans to broadcast the show nationally. Maestro Wolfgang Sawallisch will be joined by Andre Watts, violinist Sarah Chang and baritone Thomas Hampson for the special performance.

"[It] will be one of the most exciting moments for us all, as we collaborate with our old friends ... to celebrate 100 exceptional years of music-making," Sawallisch, who will begin his eighth season as music director, said in a statement.

Other highlights of the season include Beethoven's rarely performed Missa Solemnis in February. The orchestra performed it once before in March 1967. Sawallisch has handpicked the soloists to perform the piece. They include soprano Christine Brewer, mezzo-soprano Marjana Lipovsek, tenor Robert Dean Smith and bass Alfred Reiter. It will be Smith and Reiter's debut appearance with the orchestra.

Sawallisch said the work expresses "an incredible fight in Beethoven himself over his faith. He believed in God, yet the continuance of warfare and his own deafness made him doubt. His faith became an open question, and that is how the work ends — as an open question for him and for all of us. [It] is a work whose power and spirituality never ceases to move me even after many years of conducting it."

Eight pieces were commissioned for the centennial, including Richard Danielpour's Violin Concerto, which was a joint commission with the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and premiered at SPAC this month. Charles Dutoit will lead Chantal Juillet for three nights in November in its performance.

The other major premiere will be Roberto Sierra's Concerto for Orchestra. A native of Puerto Rico, Sierra will come to Philadelphia for a three-week residency through the orchestra's educational program. Sawallisch said Sierra's Concerto "promises to be both poetic and exciting."

Another featured and rarely heard performance will be Smetana's complete Ma vlast in February. The complete cycle is one of Sawallisch's specialties.

"[It] is a noble set of tone painting which I have had the pleasure to conduct many times in the composer's hometown of Prague [with the Czech Philharmonic]," Sawallisch said in the statement.

"You don't get to hear [Ma vlast] done in full very often in this country, and we're excited to have the right conductor to do it," orchestra spokesperson Eric Sellen said.

During the last year, the orchestra held a competition that was restricted to emerging composers who haven't yet established a big reputation.

"There were 330 pieces submitted," Sellen said, adding that those were narrowed down to seven by competiton co-sponsors, the American Composers Forum and composers Aaron Jay Kernis and Libby Larson. "Maestro Sawallisch picked the final three, and on Oct. 5 we will play all three and the audience will pick the winner. We're hoping we can challenge the audience to decide why they like one over the other."

The winning composition will be performed the rest of the weekend as well as at the orchestra's concert at Carnegie Hall in New York later this year.

The balance of the centennial concerts will see a return to the full repertory of the orchestra after its past season, which focused on music of the 20th century.

"I think it will be certainly interesting to go back to the full range of repertory," Sellen said, "and it may be that some of the 18th- and 19th-century works sound a little fresher after a year off."

According to Sellen, due to some bad local press and audience's trepidation about of 20th century fare, ticket sales were slow at the beginning. But by the end, the season was deemed a huge success.

"Twentieth-century music is no longer scary," Sellen said, "[that] is the lesson we learned."