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Philadelphia Orchestra celebrates legacy of Leopold Stokowski

A century ago, a London-born conductor with Polish and Irish roots received a conducting offer from the Philadelphia Orchestra. He accepted, and a golden age of music-making began.

This month, the centennial of Leopold Stokowski's association with the orchestra is being celebrated with four concerts led by its dynamic music director designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The performances will be held at the Academy of Music, which the Philadelphia Orchestra called home for its first 100 years (some folks may never forgive the ensemble for moving into the Kimmel Center down the street).

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It's a great opportunity to be reminded of one of the first superstar conductors. If part of the attraction had to do with ...

his striking looks and his ability to fuel publicity (three marriages, one of them to a much younger Gloria Vanderbilt, and a fling with Greta Garbo didn't hurt), Stokowski's reputation ultimately was made by his artistic imagination, his ability to produce magic from tone.

He developed the "Philadelphia Sound" -- based on the lushness of the string section -- and applied that sound to a remarkable range of repertoire (too remarkable for some ladies on the board who complained about "debatable music"). He also stepped into celluloid history with the 1940 Disney classic "Fantasia," which further sealed his lasting fame.

The "Stokowski Celebration" will offer a snapshot of the conductor's tenure in Philadelphia. The performances will be accompanied by special visual effects, a nod to his own experimentation with stage lighting at concerts.

At 8 p.m. June 21, Nézet-Séguin leads the orchestra in Dvorak's "New World" Symphony and Rimsky-Korsakov's "Sheherazade." A 2 p.m. matinee on June 22 features works from Stokowski's Philadelphia Orchestra debut (Oct. 11, 1912): Brahms' Symphony No. 1, Ippolitov-Ivanov's "Caucasian Sketches," and Wagner's "Tannhauser" Overture.

Music from "Fantasia," with scenes from the movie projected overhead, will be performed during a family concert at 11:30 a.m. June 23.

The final concert, at 8 p.m. June 23, is audience choice -- a practice Stokowski started. Philadelphia Orchestra fans got a chance to vote on selections a few months ago. The results are pure Stokowski, including his arrangement of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor; Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"; Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite and Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries."

Given the enticing lineup, I think that, as W. C. Fields might say, all things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia next week.

Here's a taste of the Stokowski-Philadelphia legacy:

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