Albert C. Barnes had a few opinions about art, and it turns out the famous art collector's theories about music were no less idiosyncratic.

He didn't stint on sharing them, either.

Leopold Stokowski found himself on the receiving end of Barnes' philosophy of music in the 1920s. Barnes once told Stokowski that his programs were "hackneyed." He described Rachmaninoff's The Bells as "theatrical clap-trap."

In two weeks of concerts starting Thursday, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Barnes Foundation dip into the odd relationship of these two lions of early-20th-century Philadelphia.

The idea came from Stéphane Denève, the Philadelphia Orchestra principal guest conductor who leads the orchestra in the festival. "Of course, I had heard about the Barnes, and when I went I was absolutely amazed," said Denève, who left the collection determined to develop a joint project.

Conductor Stéphane Denève
Drew Farrell
Conductor Stéphane Denève

His first thought was a series of programs exploring the relationship between visual art and music, but when he learned that Barnes and Stokowski actually knew each other, it sparked new programming possibilities.

Orchestral concerts in the festival are interwoven with theatrical scenes by playwright Didi Balle inspired by correspondence between Barnes and Stokowski. A panel discussion explores the influence of both of these progressives. Two chamber concerts of contemporary music promise as much edge in our time as Stokowski's choices did in his. And archival letters and other material on display in the Kimmel Center lobby show some of the artistic and aesthetic views shared (or not) by Barnes and Stokowski.

Giorgio de Chirico’s oil of Albert C. Barnes (1926), from the Barnes Foundation collection.
The Barnes Foundation
Giorgio de Chirico’s oil of Albert C. Barnes (1926), from the Barnes Foundation collection.

Barnes liked to complain about the critics. But as a music critic who expressed his theories in colorful, sometimes breathless invective in letters to Stokowski, Barnes had no equal.

He told the conductor some soloists with the Philadelphia Orchestra were "mere dressed-up dolls and imitation artists." Composers weren't spared. He referred to Mahler's "spectacular banalities," Wagner's "voluptuous debauches," and Weber's "inanities." (Weber? Perhaps he meant Webern?)

"Why give us so much … that nourishes the idle, the ignorant, the lazy, the debauche, to whom in music the only thing is the cheap emotional orgy …" wrote Barnes to Stokowski in a letter of Oct. 18, 1920, now in the Barnes Foundation archives.

P.S., he wrote: the letter was "written in a friendly and altruistic spirit."

Stokowski was known as a force in his own right but appears to have responded with only polite brevity. "It is plain that your fundamental ideas of art are so different from mine that a discussion would lead to no worth while result either for you or me." the conductor wrote back.

‘Shadow and light’

"They were both Greek gods, not Christian gods where they were all good or all bad, but more in the model of Zeus. They are multidimensional and flawed," says Balle, who created and directed the dramatic scenes that will go along with the orchestra's performances. "They were complex, shadow-and-light figures — larger than life."

What are the orchestral pieces to be played and how do they draw a connection between Stokowski and Barnes?

Barnes once suggested Stokowski program Milhaud's The Creation of the World, but the conductor never did.

Now the orchestra will play the work, which was written after Milhaud visited Harlem and "looks at some of the cross-pollination between Paris and America with musical styles like jazz," says orchestra artistic planning vice president Jeremy Rothman.

Barnes had an affinity for the music of Palestrina, as did Stokowski, and he felt "there was a relationship between his music and paintings he owned," says Rothman. And so the orchestra will perform Stokowski's orchestration of Palestrina's Adoramus te Christe. Other works on the program: Debussy's La Mer, the Chausson Poème with violinist David Kim as soloist, Stokowski's orchestration of Debussy's "The Sunken Cathedral" from his piano Preludes, Book I, the Poulenc Organ Concerto with organist Peter Richard Conte, and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.

Barnes and Stokowski had strong opinions, but they did perhaps recognize something in each other.

Philadelphia was a conservative city in the early 20th century, and "I think it was purely by happenstance that it became the artistic launching pad for two unique visionaries like Barnes and Stoki," says historian Jack McCarthy, who has curated about 30 letters, photos, concert programs, and other artifacts about Barnes that are displayed in the Kimmel lobby.

As Barnes wrote to Stokowski: "I appreciate the difficulties of your position for I know the conditions in Philadelphia that make for a state of contented, ignorant sloth."

Typescript notes for an Albert Barnes lecture with annotations on “Strawinsky [Stravinsky] – Matisse,” 1931.
The Art of Henri-Matisse Manuscript Collection, Barnes Foundation Archives
Typescript notes for an Albert Barnes lecture with annotations on “Strawinsky [Stravinsky] – Matisse,” 1931.

CLASSICAL MUSIC

The Philadelphia Orchestra's Barnes/Stokowski Festival

  • Orchestral concerts in Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Streets, Oct. 11-13 and Oct. 19-21. Free concerts by chamber music presenter SoundLAB Oct. 16 and 18 at the American Philosophical Society and Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral. Panel discussion, “Stokowski, Barnes, and Matisse,” Oct. 13 at the Barnes Foundation. Tickets are $10-$168 (the free chamber music concerts require a reservation). Information: philorch.org, 215-893-1999.