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Academy of Music Anniversary Concert

Academy of Music
01/26/2008 -  
Hector Berlioz: from Symphonie fantastique II. A Ball
Giacomo Puccini: “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi
Gaetano Donizetti: “Nel dolce incanto” from L’elisir d’amore
Sergei Rachmaninov: excerpt from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Billy Joel: Waltz No. 2 - Steinway Hall
Wink, Goldman, Stanton, Heinemann, Pai: Etude for PVC Pipes and Orchestra
Billy Joel: Songs

Disella Larusdottir (soprano), Conrad Tao (piano), Blue Man Group, Billy Joel
Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)

Philadelphia’s rich and famous assemble at the Academy of Music every January for a gala concert celebrating the venerable house’s anniversary. The concerts have raised millions of dollars to renovate and maintain the oldest and most elegant opera house in the United States. For decades, the concerts have featured the Philadelphia Orchestra and famous musical artists. Fifty years ago, Maria Callas joined Eugene Ormandy and the orchestra. Renata Tebaldi and Van Cliburn performed on the same bill. Leopold Stokowski led concerts with Franco Corelli and Birgit Nilsson. Other joint concert appearances included Joan Sutherland and Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti and Shirley Verrett. Last season brought the odd pairing of Deborah Voigt and Ben Heppner with pop singer Rod Stewart for a concert attended by Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles.

The program for the 151st Anniversary Concert on January 26 proved even more of a mismatch. The headliner was Billy Joel in his debut with a major orchestra. Also on the bill was Blue Man Group, a trio of musicians in blue face and black dress who use foam-rubber paddles to pound on an electronic percussion instrument. Blue Man Group’s performances usually include a "poncho section" in the front rows where audience members are provided with plastic ponchos to protect them from the food, paint, and other substances thrown or sprayed from the stage. Nothing as exciting as that happened during the noisy but tedious piece the group performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

At the end of the evening, Billy Joel took the stage to sing a collection of his hits from the 1970s and 1980s. His voice is now an amplified shadow of itself – hollow, short on top and often shy of the pitch. The audience did not seem to care. They rewarded lame performances of “Piano Man,” “Uptown Girl” and other songs with cheers and a standing ovation. The orchestra musicians gamely played along with the singer’s five-man rock band. They also performed the premiere of a meandering orchestral waltz Joel composed.

In the classical portion of the concert, the program emphasized youth. Disella Larusdottir, a soprano from Iceland, sang arias by Puccini and Donizetti. Her thin, shrill voice proved disappointing. Much better was Conrad Tao, a 13-year-old piano virtuoso from the Juilliard School of Music. In an extended excerpt from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Tao impressed with his beautifully schooled playing. He got almost as much applause as Billy Joel. The bizarre concert opened with the second part of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Christoph Eschenbach fussed with Berlioz’s waltz until it lost its rhythmic shape. A dispiriting opening to a disappointing evening.

Robert Baxter



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