The most heartening image from the Philadelphia Orchestra's opening-night gala Thursday night might have been the one that defied stereotypes. Tucked in with the audience of the black-tied, suited, and begowned was a young man, maybe 18 or 19, in shorts. There was the Philadelphia Orchestra's future.
If dress sends a signal, opening night this year telegraphed something unmistakably egalitarian. The orchestra had brought in hundreds of students at no charge to blend with the group's loyal philanthropists and devoted volunteer corps who keep the enterprise going. Verizon Hall was an impressive menagerie of specimens old-world and new.
"Concerts like this are one of our society's most democratizing acts," new Philadelphia Orchestra president and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky said to the audience of nearly 1,300.
The mix worked. Opening night of the orchestra's 119th season drew the best-attended post-concert dinner since 2013, with 570 attendees; total donations of $567,825 were the highest since 2015, an orchestra spokesperson said.
Even apart from the audience, transitions and generational shifts were in the air. Many in the orchestra's orbit were getting their first chance to bend the ear of Tarnopolsky at a pre-concert reception and post-concert dinner at the Kimmel. Board member and donor Joseph M. Manko Sr. spoke touchingly about the circle of life in accepting the Philadelphia Orchestra Award, given to him and his late wife, Lynn, for decades of involvement.
Orchestra board chairman Richard B. Worley said the orchestra was dedicated to the memory of philanthropist and businessman H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, who died Aug. 5 and who had typically been a bright presence at opening night.
>> READ MORE: H.F. 'Gerry' Lenfest: Philadelphia philanthropist
The ensemble itself arrived on stage mid-morph. The prominent seat long occupied by principal oboist Richard Woodhams had another sitting in it. Woodhams retired last month, and Nathan Hughes, one of two principal oboists with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, was playing principal here for the night in yet another tryout as the orchestra seeks to fill the spot.
Don Juan was the apt trial this time, with its long, sweet intermittent oboe solo toward the middle. No one else will be Woodhams — that much is sure — and the orchestra's audition committee must accept that the next principal oboist, though he or she must be special, will have to be special in other ways.
Hughes is a solid player. But he was not on this night an individualist. Strauss was instructive; this music blooms only when realized in changing colors and contours. For so critical a position, it's easy to see why the orchestra might be thinking twice.
The oboe search continues, and Hughes and others will be back for trial weeks, an orchestra spokesperson said.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin presided over the Strauss in a fine interpretation, and over the evening in his cheery way. The program was a mix of looking back and to the future, he said. The orchestra played the Strauss in Saratoga Springs last month in Woodhams' last concerts with the orchestra as a member, and Nézet-Séguin reprised one movement from last season's Brahms chamber music outing at the College of Physicians.
He is "much, much, much, much more nervous" at the keyboard than on the podium, Nézet-Séguin told the audience. In the last movement of the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor with violinist Ying Fu, violist Kerri Ryan, and cellist Priscilla Lee, the piece wasn't as solidly under Nézet-Séguin's fingers as it had been in last season's performance, but the slower sections were played with a soulful string richness.
It was apparently the beginning of a goodbye of sorts for associate concertmaster Fu. Officially, he is taking a one-year leave from the orchestra, but the National Symphony Orchestra has just announced he will take up the same position with that orchestra starting in January.
The two other pieces on the program looked routine on paper, but in performance actually worked well. Bernstein's Overture to Candide can probably be put away for a while after a year-plus celebration of the composer's birth centenary. Here it anticipated a rare performance by the orchestra of the entire operetta, scheduled for the end of the season.
Less convincing was the connection from Rossini's Overture to William Tell to the Rossini Stabat Mater that the orchestra will perform in January. Still, the audience giggled with the start of the famous trumpet fanfare, which, despite its retro patina, still tickles our pop-culture sensibilities.
There was something new on stage for this year's opening night, and it was hard to tell whether it pointed to the past or future: two security guards sitting on stage at opposite ends. The orchestra last season experienced a couple of disruptions from a pro-Palestinian group protesting its visit to Israel. An orchestra spokesperson declined to answer any questions about the security guards — why they were there, or whether they are a new fixture — but their presence was a jarring reminder of the outside world.
In the Rossini, though, the two worlds met. The familiar trumpet theme began, and the guard closer to me stirred with the look of sudden recognition. One man's warhorse is another's passage back to childhood.