Arts & Culture

Coming to Helzberg Hall: the Philadelphia Orchestra and its ‘decadent’ sound

Yannick Nézet-Séguin will conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra at Helzberg Hall.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin will conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra at Helzberg Hall.

There are many reasons classical music fans are eagerly anticipating the Philadelphia Orchestra concert being presented by the Harriman-Jewell Series on Sept. 26.

It’s an opportunity to see one of today’s biggest conducting stars, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, in action. It’s also a chance to hear the acclaimed violinist Lisa Batiashvili perform Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.

But perhaps the most exciting aspect of this concert is just being able to hear the fabled “Philadelphia sound” in Helzberg Hall.

Leopold Stokowski, a conductor known for his love of musical excess, led the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1912 to 1941. He is credited with creating the unique, full-bodied Philadelphia sound.

Eugene Ormandy, who took over from Stokowski and led the orchestra until 1980, maintained and burnished that sound.

Under Ormandy, the orchestra’s sound became central to its marketing. Philadelphia Orchestra albums always referred to its “Magnificent Sound,” its “Glorious Sound” and “The Richest Sound on Earth.”

Nézet-Séguin, who has led the Philadelphia Orchestra for seven years, is its fifth music director since Ormandy. Has the orchestra been able to maintain that “Glorious Sound”?

David Kim, who has served under four conductors during his 19 years as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s concertmaster, believes so.

“That sound is there,” Kim said. “I’ve asked Yo-Yo Ma on many occasions, ‘C’mon, Yo-Yo. Tell me the truth. You play with every orchestra in the world, is the Philadelphia Orchestra sound a myth or something that is real?’ Yo-Yo is a straight-shooter when it comes to these kinds of questions, and he said ‘Absolutely. It’s very much real. It is something to bathe in and enjoy. And it’s your calling card.’”

Kim, who says he’s a wine lover, finds himself describing the sound in gourmand terms.

“When you’re describing a Bordeaux or California cabernet, one will say, ‘Oh, well, it’s full of fall colors and rich, fatty overtones,’” he said. “That is exactly how you would describe the Philadelphia sound. Very rich, unctuous, decadent and warm and fatty. Like foie gras or a great champagne, or rich, dark chocolate. These are things that we want the most, and that’s the way it is with our sound.”

Kim says the music Nézet-Séguin will conduct in Helzberg Hall will show off that sound to great effect. One work — Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances — was written specifically for the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Rachmaninoff had quite a history with the orchestra, performing and recording with it several times as a piano soloist. In 1939, the orchestra honored the Russian with a series of all-Rachmaninoff concerts called the Rachmaninoff cycle. The composer returned the love, once writing:

“Philadelphia has the finest orchestra I have ever heard at any time or any place in my whole life. I don’t know that I would be exaggerating if I said that it is the finest orchestra the world has ever heard.”

Rachmaninoff composed his last work, the Symphonic Dances, for the Philadelphia Orchestra and dedicated it to the ensemble.

“It is perfect for showing off the Philadelphia sound because Sergei Rachmaninoff said himself that when he composed it, he had our orchestra’s sound in his ear,” Kim said. “We play it quite a bit, and it’s just a wonderful vehicle to show off that decadent, high cholesterol sound.”

In addition to the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, the orchestra will also perform a new work, “Liar,” an orchestral suite from “Marnie” by Nico Muhly. “Marnie” will have its Metropolitan Opera debut in October conducted by Nézet-Séguin, who is the Met’s new music director.

Kim said “Marnie” is based on the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name and “is very dramatic and full of wonderful harmonies. It almost feels like John Williams on steroids.”

Kim, who has worked in Philadelphia under venerable conductors, says that Nézet-Séguin is particularly exciting.

“It is so much fun,” Kim said. “He’s the face of the next generation of great conductors. It has to be the same feeling my colleagues might have had when a young Leonard Bernstein or a young Riccardo Muti were on the scene. I feel very privileged that this is happening during my career.”

7 p.m. Sept. 26. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $36.30-$91.50. 816-415-5025 or

KC Chamber Orchestra’s new season

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Soprano Sarah Tannehill Anderson Kaylyn Wright

The Kansas City Chamber Orchestra conducted by Bruce Sorrell will open its new season with “Musical Passages,” a concert featuring music by Bach, Haydn and Jean Belmont Ford on Sept. 27 at Old Mission United Methodist Church.

Soprano Sarah Tannehill Anderson will be the soloist in Ford’s “Vocalise,” which had its world premiere with the KC Chamber Orchestra in 2015.

The orchestra, now beginning its 32nd season, fills an important niche in Kansas City. Its programs feature baroque, classical and modern works for chamber orchestra, like Bach’s Suite No. 1 on its season-opener. These are works that would likely never be played by a full-sized orchestra.

7:30 p.m. Sept. 27. Old Mission United Methodist Church, 5519 State Park Road, Fairway. $20. 816-235-6222 or

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