Classical music concerts stand just fine on their own — once you get there. But getting audiences in the door this fall is, more than ever, a matter of selling the Big Idea behind the music.
The world couldn't wait for Leonard Bernstein to turn 100. So his 99th birthday last month kicked off the 100th year with, among other things, a forthcoming full performance of West Side Story by the Philadelphia Orchestra (Oct. 12-15). Opera Philadelphia embraces 17, as in O17, its inaugural opera festival starting in a few days that bunches together 25 performances in a span of fewer than two weeks.
Was the world also waiting for the 250th death anniversary of Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) — who is in the Guinness Book of World Records for composing more music than anybody (possibly to pay his wife's gambling debts)? Whatever the case, Tempesta di Mare, Philadelphia's baroque band, has a Telemann-themed season, including an Oct. 14 Kimmel Center concert.
The Curtis Institute is dedicating its academic year to "The Edge Effect," celebrating composers who looked outside their musical spheres for inspiration. Curtis Symphony Orchestra's Oct. 29 Kimmel Center concert has Berlioz using music to conjure opium visions in Symphony fantastique and Richard Strauss dramatizing Cervantes in purely orchestral terms with Don Quixote.
FringeArts' October Revolution festival (Oct. 5-8) may well live up to its name with all sorts of genre-blurring music by John Luther Adams, So Percussion, and the Sun Ra Arkestra playing its entire 1973 Space is the Place (reminding us what extraterrestrial music might be).
We've chosen these promising fall highlights based on the music itself. What a concept.
The Daedalus Quartet (Sept. 10 and 12, Oct. 13 and 20, and 2018 dates in venues across the University of Pennsylvania campus). Daedalus plays Beethoven's 16 quartets, not in order but in ways that make a good program. Bonus events include the Sept. 12 concert at the Kelly Writers House with readings of poems (most famously, T.S. Eliot's) responding to Beethoven's String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132. Some concerts are free. (215-898-3900, annenbergcenter.org) — David Patrick Stearns
Opera Philadelphia 017 Festival. (Sept. 14-25). It could boost cultural tourism or even change the reputation of the city's arts institutions, often viewed as too old-world. The high-tech production of The Magic Flute the company is importing will be a crowd-pleaser, with sequences that put live singers in the midst of projected animation. Musically, I'm most intrigued by The Wake World, David Hertzberg's one-act opera inspired by works in the Barnes Foundation (and performed there) and by British polymath Aleister Crowley (poet, occultist, mountaineer). Hertzberg's musical language, to judge by past works, is atmospheric and highly sensitive to color — not bad qualities given the subject matter. (215-732-8400, operaphila.org) — Peter Dobrin
Orchestra 2001 (Sept. 23, Schuylkill Banks). Artistic director Jayce Ogren needs an ankle bracelet so we can always find him amid his far-flung events. First is the Sept. 23 John Luther Adams' Inuksuit with all manner of instruments scattered about the Schuylkill Banks (2501 Walnut St.). The big event is Nov. 16's Steve Mackey piece Slide at Venice Island Performing Arts Center in Manayunk. (267-687-6243, orchestra2001.org) — D.P.S.
Opera on the Mall (Sept. 23, Independence Mall). This year's free, outdoor Opera Philadelphia HD broadcast is Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. It's always hard to know which is more unpredictable — the weather or the singers. But in this case, the performance is a prerecorded presentation of last season's production with baritone John Chest and soprano Layla Claire, and so a weeping September sky wins out as the only variable. (215-732-8400, operaonthemall.org). — P.D.
Barney and All That Jazz (Oct. 6-8). Former longtime member of the U.S. House of Representatives Barney Frank narrates Gunther Schuller's Journey Into Jazz in three concerts (Swarthmore, Haverford, and Center City) by James Freeman's Chamber Orchestra First Editions. Schuller's 1962 work, the story of a small boy with a big hunger for music, is more obscure than it ought to be, and though the piece has a time-capsule feel, it still comes across as witty and charming. The program also includes the premiere of a work for jazz quintet and string orchestra by drummer-composer Gabriel Globus-Hoenich.(chamberorchestrafe.org) — P.D.
Renée Fleming (Oct. 15, Verizon Hall). Kimmel Center Presents does not import big-name classical artists the way it once did, but it is bringing in the famed soprano with pianist Inon Barnatan (see below) for a recital, and it is one of considerable breadth: songs by Brahms, Fauré, Massenet, and Egon Kornauth; excerpts from Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos; and the world premiere of a new André Previn song cycle, Lyrical Yeats, commissioned by Fleming. (215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org). — P.D.
Alisa Weilerstein and Inon Barnatan (Oct. 16, Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, Perelman Theater). The cellist and pianist, both superlative originals, have assembled a particularly lovely program: Mendelssohn's Cello Sonata in D Major, Falla's Suite Populaire Espagnole, the Debussy Cello Sonata, and Chopin's Cello Sonata in G Minor. (215-569-8080, pcmsconcerts.org) — P.D.
Jennifer Higdon On a Wire (Oct. 19-21, Philadelphia Orchestra, Verizon Hall). This concerto written for the modern music group Eighth Blackbird is a long way from blue cathedral, but it gave her a lot of moving parts in one of her wittiest pieces. (215-893-1999, philorch.org) — D.P.S.
Wizarding with John Williams (Oct. 28, Verizon Hall). The first of the Philadelphia Orchestra's four family concerts this season promises musical portraits of Princess Leia, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, and Superman as the orchestra continues its multiseason fixation on the movie scores of John Williams. Costumes are encouraged. Stéphane Denève wields the light saber – er, baton. (215-893-1999, philorch.org) — P.D.
Benjamin Grosvenor (Nov. 10, Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, Perelman Theater). This 25-year-old British pianist established a major career not on the basis of blazing fingers but with penetrating music insights. His program gives him plenty to be insightful about: Berg's Piano Sonata Op. 1 and Ravel's Gaspard de la unit. (215-569-8080, pcmsconcerts.org) — D.P.S.
Haydn's The Seasons (Nov. 16-18, Philadelphia Orchestra, Verizon Hall). Haydn's The Creation has stolen thunder from the composer's later, heartier work The Seasons, which, by the way, is far more eventful than Vivaldi's. Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin has assembled world-class soloists, including tenor Werner Gura and Curtis graduate Matthew Rose. (215-893-1999, philorch.org) — D.P.S.
Barbara Hannigan and Reinbert de Leeuw (Nov. 21, Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, Perelman Theater). This glamorous soprano and bookish-looking pianist may resemble the Owl and the Pussycat, but musically, this is a meeting of hugely intelligent contemporary-music minds in a Wolf-through-Webern program. (215-569-8080, pcmsconcerts.org) — D.P.S.
Symphony for a Broken Orchestra (Dec. 3, 23rd Street Armory). Temple Contemporary at Temple University is hatching the kind of project that perhaps only Pulitzer-winning composer David Lang could pull off: a piece for 1,000 broken instruments owned by the School District of Philadelphia. (symphonyfoabrokenorchestra.org) — D.P.S.
Aizuri Quartet and Jonathan Biss (Dec. 9, Curtis Institute of Music). The Curtis brings together its busy piano professor and former string-quartet-in-residence for a program that includes composers as far from one another as Hildegard of Bingen and Dvořák (his Quintet No. 2 in A Major). Both the pianist and quartet are known for risk-taking, so this concert should have a strong element of daring. (215-893-7902, curtis.edu) — P.D.