Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Reflections on the Philadelphia Orchestra

Infoshare, the excellent blog from the US Music Library Association pointed me in the direction of the Philadelphia Orchestra tour blog. It's a journal of the orchestra's current tour of Asia (photo to the right is cellists Alex Veltman and Udi Bar-David in Hong Kong). The blog is well worth visiting, and is a really good example of a blog working as a journal rather than a vehicle for personal rants.

Mention of the Philadelphia Orchestra reminds me of my brief involvement with them some twenty five years ago. I was with EMI/Angel at that time, and one of my roles was artist promotion. Riccardo Muti was the cat's whiskers and had just been appointed to the Music Directorship in Philadelphia in succession to Ormandy, and this gave us the opportunity to record there. Although the quality of the Philadelphia Orchestra was superb there had always been a feeling of disappointment with the sound of the RCA recordings with Ormandy made in the acoustically rather dry hall of the Curtis Institute in the city.

Angel Record's John Coveney found the acoustically excellent Met Church which started life as an opera house (see footnote for full history). The church at that time was in a very run down part of the city (it is probably now surrounded by expensive lofts). We recorded Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Stravinsky's Firebird among other works there. The Met Church posed unique problems including an antique heating system which ruined takes with metallic creaks during pianissimos, and lumps of plaster falling from the ceiling during fortissimos . The acoustics though were fine and the sound was wonderful, largely because we imported the production team of Michael Gray (sound engineer) and Christopher Bishop (producer) from the UK for the recordings. I still have the Mussorgsky on vinyl, the analogue sound is very exciting; but like much of Muti's work the interpretation strikes me as mostly circumference, and little circle.

I remember desperately trying to find a cab for Muti in the rather tough street outside the Met Church in tropical heat at the end of one session. Muti appreciated my efforts by saying - "if this had been a Deutsche Grammophon session they would have arranged a limo". Plus ca change....

Footnote from my sleeve note for Muti's 1979 Pictures at an Exhibition LP - The Met Church building was built as an opera house in 1908 by Oscar Hammerstein 1 (grandfather of the famous lyricist-librettist) and opened in November of that year. The first season stars included Garden, Melba, Tetrazzini and McCormack. It was the eleventh of thirteen theatres and opera houses he built in New York, Philadelphia and London (the now demolished Stoll Theatre). It was perhaps his most ambitious, most beautiful and near-perfect auditorium. An enormous hall seated 4,200 patrons, every one of whom had perfect sight-lines to the stage. In April 1910 it was purchased by the Metopolitan Opera Company of New York, and renamed the Metropolitan Opera House. As its use diminished over the following years it became the scene for everything from school graduations to prize fights, with very occasional appearances by the Philadelphia Orchestra. In May 1954 the building was acquired by the Reverend Thea Jones who allowed EMI/Angel to use it as a recording venue for the first time in 1978. That is what I wrote in 1978. What has since happened to the Met Church/Metropolitan Opera House? I can find no more recent information on the internet. Can any readers update the story?

If you enjoyed this post follow an overgrown path to My first classical record and there is more on maestro Muti here.

2 comments:

John said...

Thanks for the nice comments about "infoshare". We've been reading and enjoying "On An Overgrown Path" too lately!

Regarding the Met Church, the historic North Philly building is once again being used as a church called Holy Ghost Headquarters. See: http://www.holyghostheadquarters.org/aboutHGH.htm

Not too long ago it was on the Philadelphia AIA list of endangered historical structures. Not sure if it still is on the list.

There are some historical photos on the Library of Congress's American Memory site: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=hhphoto&fileName=pa/pa1000/pa1066/photos/browse.db&action=browse&recNum=0&title2=Philadelphia%20Opera%20House,%201400-1418%20Poplar%20Street,%20Philadelphia,%20Philadelphia%20County,%20PA&displayType=1&itemLink=D?hh:1:./temp/~ammem_ncOe::

Sorry for the long URLs!

Cheers!
John
janderie@haverford.edu
http://haverfordlibrary.typepad.com/infoshare/

Garth Trinkl said...

Bob and John,

Additional information about Oscar Hammerstein's 1908 Metropolitan Opera House (aka Philadelphia Opera House and Philadelphia Evangelistic Center (1955)), including 22 historic photographs, is available at the superb web-site of Philadelphia Architects and Buildings:

http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/pj_display.cfm/6104

To immediately view all 22 historic photographs (through 1971), see:

http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/image_gallery.cfm?RecordId=6C03AF95-F7D1-4A0A-BB5241147C7D2279&ShowAll=9999

Unfortunately Bob, I'm not sure the church is now surrounded by expensive lofts. It sold for $225,000 in 1998 and today (2005) has a certified market value of only $175,000:

http://brtweb.phila.gov/accountDetails.aspx?an=1914000858

Valuation details are available at:

http://brtweb.phila.gov/accountDetails.aspx?an=1914000858

I remember visiting this part of North Philly once or twice as a college student in 1974 or 1975.