PHILLY SOUND

THE BALTIMORE SUN

More than 90 years ago, folks in Philadelphia first started talking about the need to build a new home for the city's orchestra. Saturday night, the conversation finally shifted. Now it's, "How do you like our new hall?"

That question was being asked repeatedly all weekend as the Philadelphia Orchestra took up residence in Verizon Hall at the $265 million Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts amid massive gala festivities that stretched over three days.

The first night was a variety show starring Elton John (at a reported $2 million fee, paid for by Sidney Kimmel, the philanthropist with the mostest whose $30 million gift earned him the name on the center's door). But Saturday really was the first important night at this grand, glass-enclosed arts complex. The major focus of the center always has been the Philadelphia Orchestra, so there is more than just casual interest in how the ensemble takes to its new digs.

After all, this orchestra, more than any other in this country, has been defined by its sound since Leopold Stokowski became music director in 1912. The "Philadelphia sound" - most recognizable by its lush string tone - became perhaps even more pronounced after Eugene Ormandy took the podium in 1936. It has undergone various tunings under subsequent conductors, but never has lost its unique shine.

This sound has taken on such mythic status that many people have wondered whether the orchestra should risk leaving the place where it all began - the Academy of Music, an opera house with famously dry acoustics built in 1857 on Broad Street two blocks from the Kimmel Center.

Not to worry. The Philadelphia Orchestra, for more than a century one of America's greatest symphonic ensembles, is going to be just fine. That's not to say everything is perfect with Verizon Hall - not yet at least.

Adjustable

Like most new concert halls, this one is acoustically flexible. Very flexible. Computers can adjust reverberation time - the most obvious element of acoustics - in an almost infinite number of ways. That's how acoustician Russell Johnson planned it.

His plan fits in neatly with the striking design by architect Rafael Vinoly, which suggests a 3-D dissection of a cello (or, as Johnson describes it: "a traditional shoe-box shape with Britney Spears curves imposed on it."). In effect, Verizon Hall not only resembles a musical instrument but is a musical instrument.

It will be broken in over the next months, even years, as the orchestra and its music director Wolfgang Sawallisch (and his successor, Christoph Eschenbach, starting in 2003) get used to their surroundings and the possibilities for shaping the "Philadelphia sound."

As orchestra president Joseph Kluger said to the throng gathered for the gala, "Tonight the Philadelphia Orchestra will be heard as it previously has been heard only outside of Philadelphia."

Sure enough, the sound pouring from the stage was quite unlike that heard a few days earlier during one of the ensemble's final appearances at the Academy of Music. That performance found the players in superb technical form under Sawallisch's ever-so-precise guidance, but lost a lot in the journey from stage to audience. It was the aural equivalent of a film shot through gauze.

Some have argued that the limitations of the Academy's acoustics actually forced the development of the "Philadelphia sound," requiring strings to project by digging into the notes more forcefully with their bows. Others counter that the sound first started when Stokowski introduced "free bowing," an approach that allows string players a wide latitude, rather than the uniform motions more commonly employed by string sections.

"The sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra exists in our ears," says bassist Neal Courtney, who served on the committee that started planning a new hall with Johnson about 15 years ago. "We play in a way that satisfies our ears, individually and as a group. When I joined the orchestra 40 years ago, my sound changed almost immediately. I wanted to sound like everyone else."

During a rehearsal Saturday afternoon, when there were only a few listeners in the hall, the orchestra sounded immense. The sheer volume, was about as different from the Academy of Music's muted condition as possible, especially in Color Wheel, a splashy new work written for the Kimmel Center opening by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and Philadelphia native Aaron Jay Kernis.

Later, with the 2,500-seat theater full of people decked out in formal finery, the sound from the stage was more controlled, but still sizable. It was easier to hear details of the scoring in Color Wheel, and also to note how little this concerto for orchestra has going for it in the way of indelible ideas.

Beethoven's Triple Concerto, featuring the superstar solo trio of violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax, reflected the basic warmth of the Verizon Hall acoustics. But it was interesting to note a touch of dryness in that sound, with a somewhat limited amount of reverberation and richness. The solo lines came through very cleanly, however.(That concerto will be remembered more for what happened in the middle of the finale than how it sounded. Ma's chair slipped off the platform on which he was playing, causing quite a gasp from the audience. He managed to get back up, helped by the orchestra member right behind him, and kept on playing - initially in a crouching position, no mean feat for a cellist - until his chair was righted.)

Sawallisch, who coaxed refined playing from the ensemble in both the Kernis and Beethoven, closed the program with a more pointed test of the acoustics - a suite from Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe, with its extraordinary range of dynamics and coloring from instruments and chorus (here the Philadelphia Singers Chorale). It was gratifying to note the clarity of the sound and an effective brightness.

Fine-tuning to come

In the end, though, the acoustics left something to be desired. More definition and presence would be nice, and it will be interesting to hear how the sound evolves. Johnson and Sawallisch will try out one setting of the hall's acoustical properties for perhaps the first two months before making adjustments to the reflective canopy above the stage, and the 100 acoustic doors lining the hall that provide access to reverberation chambers.

"We welcome the hall's adjustability, but we will be very cautious," Philadelphia Orchestra president Kluger says. "The objective is to find the optimum setting and leave it there."

That's fine with Johnson.

"It's not a toy," the acoustician says of Verizon Hall. "It's very, very important to go slow."

There's no doubt that the orchestra and its public are looking forward to this deliberate process of settling into the new performing space, a space likely to have a considerable impact on Philadelphia's cultural and economic life.

"As soon as I walked into the front door, it felt amazing," pianist Ax says. "It's such a friendly, beautiful space."

It's also a space almost guaranteed to preserve - and enhance - that fabled "Philadelphia sound."

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