It would be nearly impossible for anyone walking down South Broad Street to miss the colossal building that makes up the Kimmel Center campus. The hub claims to be the center of Philadelphia’s arts culture, and though such a statement is exclusive and incredibly lofty, it does manage to be the home of many incredible performance groups. One such group is The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. As one of the founding resident companies of the Kimmel Center, the Chamber Orchestra has made its home in the Perelman Theatre where it performed its most recent engagement, “À la Française.”
The evening was a love letter to French composers. With a setlist made up of the respective works of Charles Gounod, Camille Saint–Saëns, Maurice Ravel, Gabriel Fauré, and Claude Debussy, the night spanned decades and artistic movements in a way that may have seemed disjointed if not for the mastery of the visiting soloist, Danbi Um. Um, an award–winning violinist, played the solos in Saint–Saëns’ Havanaise for Violin and Orchestra and Maurice Ravel’s Tzigane, Concert Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra, capturing the attention of every audience member for the entirety of her time on stage.
To be frank, I didn’t know any of that before the conductor, Dirk Brossé, explained it at the top of the show. I didn't know who the soloist was or what songs she would be playing or even the evening's theme. I had simply bought the tickets when I was going through a phase of listlessness, where I felt like I should be interacting with the city more. Granted, it's not as if I completely isolated myself in my apartment. Like many others, I frequently visit Union Transfer, The Fillmore, The Met and many other Philly venues.
However, the classical music scene slipped away from me, which is odd, as it was something so central to my teenage years. I spent nearly a decade playing the clarinet in various orchestras, and it wasn't just because I had to take an elective at school. I genuinely loved it, and for a time, I was utterly obsessed with classical music. I had countless playlists filled with the works of everyone from Saint–Saëns to Sibelius, and I was probably an irritatingly pretentious fourteen–year–old about it.
Then, something changed. When I began university, I fully intended to audition for one of Penn’s orchestras or instrumental groups, but for some reason or another, I never did. I started to pick up the guitar and, like many other first–years, found that I didn't have time to pursue all that I loved. During this hectic time of year, filled with both good and less–than–good surprises, I wanted to reclaim the teenage love. So, I impulse bought tickets to a Monday night show of “À la Française.”
And the concert itself did not not disappoint. Instead of opening up with a big, conventional orchestral piece, the evening began with a conductor–less rendition of the four movements of Gounod’s Petite Symphonie for Wind Nonet. The exceptionally–performed piece, with its drastic yet logical tempo changes, floated throughout the theatre and foreshadowed good things to come. As embarrassingly sentimental as it sounds, my heart skipped a beat at each clarinet solo—somehow, it remembered what it once felt like to sit in such a seat and play such music. And it continued to do so throughout the night as, apparently, French composers were big fans of a good clarinet solo.
Unsurprisingly, the main highlights of the show were obviously the two pieces featuring Danbi Um. Even now, I struggle to find the words to describe her performance. It is truly such an incredible experience to watch someone do what it seems they were born to do. As her fingers moved up and down the neck of violin at impossible speeds and in complex patterns, it was as if the world disappeared and all that existed was Um. Nevertheless, the show also including magnificent flute and french horn (and clarinet!) solos as well as a stunning featured performance by the harpist in Debussy’s Petite Suite.
That said, the intermission was poorly placed, interrupting the show's momentum as it climbed to its peak. The second half of the evening, consequently, dragged a bit. I understand they were trying to space out the pieces featuring Um, but I wished they reorganized a couple songs in the second half by moving the Fauré to the first.
Nevertheless, the night reminded me of why I loved this music so much in the first place. Regardless, this isn't an article that's going to say that my night at the Kimmel Center completely changed my life or that I’m going to audition for Penn’s own chamber orchestra in the fall. That's simply not true.
Instead, it’s a reminder to engage with the city because there are so many special moments out there to find. My night at “À la Française” was like a glimpse at my teenage self, and I spent the entire time after indulging in the utter nostalgia of classical music playlists from my early high school days. They won’t transform your life, but they do not have to. They will be special nonetheless.