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Breaking in Marian Anderson Hall, The Philadelphia Orchestra honors a legend and begins an era

Soprano Angel Blue with The Philadelphia Orchestra and Music and Artistic Director Yannick Nézet -Séguin, at Marian Anderson Hall on June 8, 2024.
Pete Checchia
/
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Soprano Angel Blue with The Philadelphia Orchestra and Music and Artistic Director Yannick Nézet -Séguin, at Marian Anderson Hall on June 8, 2024.

It is hard to overstate the impact of singer Marian Anderson, one of America’s most gifted artists, whose career was irrevocably altered because of her race. Her talents were never in doubt: when the Philadelphia-born contralto was 23, she triumphed over 300 others to sing with the New York Philharmonic. And though she eventually sang at The Metropolitan Opera, her talents were blocked by racial segregation at the time.

In 1939, Anderson’s scheduled appearance at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. was blocked by members of the Daughters of the American Republic (DAR), who withheld their approval, causing DAR member Eleanor Roosevelt — First Lady at the time — to resign in protest. Anderson had the last word, singing instead at the Lincoln Memorial, where she performed for an estimated 75,000 people — a moment described by NPR’s Susan Stamberg as “one of the most important musical events of the 20th century.”

Soprano Latonia Moore, The Philadelphia Orchestra and Music and Artistic Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, at Marian Anderson Hall on June 8, 2024.
Pete Checchia
/
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Soprano Latonia Moore, The Philadelphia Orchestra and Music and Artistic Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, at Marian Anderson Hall on June 8, 2024.

This past Saturday night, The Philadelphia Orchestra made a titanic corrective. For a sold-out audience — with a “Great Stages Gala” at the heart of the day’s festivities — the orchestra offered a stirring evening to celebrate the official renaming of its main concert venue, which will now be known as Marian Anderson Hall.

The evening began with black-and-white newsreel footage from that day at the Lincoln Memorial — Easter Sunday, June 9, 1939 — when Anderson began with “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” (a.k.a., “America”). As the onscreen history concluded, the orchestra began the same song, renowned soprano Latonia Moore entering from the wings to take up Anderson’s mantle. With 21st-century clarity, she and the ensemble propelled the message into the present day.

At 90 minutes, the evening was carefully curated, with no sequence taken for granted. After the opening montage, as the applause subsided, it rose again for the evening’s host, Queen Latifah, who exuded suave confidence: if she were the program’s glue, she made the most glamorous of epoxies.

Queen Latifah with The Philadelphia Orchestra and Music and Artistic Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, at Marian Anderson Hall on June 8, 2024.
Pete Checchia
/
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Queen Latifah with The Philadelphia Orchestra and Music and Artistic Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, at Marian Anderson Hall on June 8, 2024.

It didn’t hurt that conductor and artistic director Yannick Nézet-Séguin seemed equally affable and in the moment. When mentioning that Anderson was one of the very first recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, he added that Latifah won the honor in 2023, slyly calling her “QL,” and joking that she had deliberately placed that information on his teleprompter. Rapport can be scripted but not faked, and they made a charming duo.

An indelible cameo came from the rapturous Audra McDonald, who made each word count in an impassioned “Carefully Taught/Children Will Listen,” a medley crafted from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific and Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. In this context, the music’s message gained new poignancy, about the perils of judgment that can pass from one generation to the next.

Vocalist Audra McDonald with The Philadelphia Orchestra and Music and Artistic Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin at Marian Anderson Hall on June 8, 2024.
Pete Checchia
/
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Vocalist Audra McDonald with The Philadelphia Orchestra and Music and Artistic Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin at Marian Anderson Hall on June 8, 2024.

Noting that Anderson’s first Metropolitan Opera role was in Verdi’s opera Un Ballo en Maschera, Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra launched into another metaphor, the thrilling overture to the composer’s La Forza del Destino. During the dramatic flood from the orchestra, it was impossible not to hear “the force of destiny” ricocheting from the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 to these russet-colored walls in 2024. Two more orchestral tributes showed the ensemble at its best, starting with the sparkling “Juba” movement — based on a traditional African dance — from Florence Price’s Third Symphony. (Two years ago, the orchestra’s recording of that 1938 work won a Grammy award for Best Orchestral Performance.) Then came Finlandia, an unexpected nod to Anderson’s 1930 tour of Scandinavia, where she fell in love with the works of Sibelius.

I couldn’t help but feel an empathetic pang for composer Valerie Coleman, unable to attend because of illness, and therefore not present to soak up the applause for her world premiere, Fanfare for Marian. A favorite composer of the orchestra and the crowd, Coleman created an anthem that not only showed strength, but the expertise of the ensemble’s ferocious brass and percussion sections.

Everything programmed had some connection to Anderson, whose name will continue to inspire artists and audiences for decades to come. Among the initial sequences, an entertaining video collage featured a lightning-fast reel — a blizzard of Philadelphia news anchors, local celebrities, and sports stars — saying simply, “Welcome to Marian Anderson Hall.” Among them was the Phillie Phanatic, the beloved bright-green spokes-creature for the Philadelphia Phillies, motioning wildly in silence, while his greeting appeared as subtitles. In the final scene, Philadelphia music students cheered the phrase, further underlining the importance of setting examples, and role models for the future.

Marcus Roberts with The Philadelphia Orchestra at Marian Anderson Hall, June 8, 2024.
Pete Checchia
/
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Marcus Roberts with The Philadelphia Orchestra at Marian Anderson Hall, June 8, 2024.

One of the standing ovations came for soprano Angel Blue, Metropolitan Opera star, who poured out a stunning “Vissi d’Arte” from Puccini’s Tosca, after which Blue, clearly moved, knelt to thank the roaring crowd. Another came for jazz pianist Marcus Roberts, who offered a sometimes-plaintive, sometimes-thunderous arrangement of a spiritual beloved by Anderson, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” To close the evening, Roberts began another song closely identified with Anderson, “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” as the stars returned to the stage to join him, augmented by some two dozen members of the St. Thomas Gospel Choir.

Earlier in the day, Matías Tarnopolsky, the orchestra’s president and CEO, introduced an array of speakers including Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker and Philadelphia City Council president Kenyatta Johnson. Among the crowd were members of Anderson’s family, who had given their approval for the honorific to proceed.

Pictured at the rededication of Marian Anderson Hall on June 8, 2024: Stacey Abrams, Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker, Leslie Miller, Philadelphia Orchestra Music and Artistic Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Richard Worley , Philadelphia Orchestra and Ensemble Arts President and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky, Philadelphia City Council President Kenyatta Johnson.
Pete Checchia
/
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Pictured at the rededication of Marian Anderson Hall on June 8, 2024: Stacey Abrams, Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker, Leslie Miller, Philadelphia Orchestra Music and Artistic Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Richard Worley , Philadelphia Orchestra and Ensemble Arts President and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky, Philadelphia City Council President Kenyatta Johnson.

Also joining in celebration were Román Viñoly, whose father, Rafael, the hall’s architect, died last year, and other luminaries from the City of Brotherly Love and beyond, such as Georgia politician and activist Stacey Abrams. And though the two donors seem disarmingly modest about their contribution to Philadelphia’s musical life and future — the $25 million gift that made all of this possible — Richard Worley and Leslie Miller accepted grateful applause, both then and at the concert, waving from one of the boxes.

As these types of events go, in high smorgasbord mode, the “little bit of everything” approach showed everyone off to prime advantage. Years from now, people will recall the inaugural event in Marian Anderson Hall with pride, in a city where each cobblestone carries a story. And the prominence of Anderson’s name will inspire countless musicians, students, and audience members for decades to come. This magnificent gesture — a tribute to an artist, a pathbreaker, and a Philadelphia daughter — is a reminder that Marian Anderson Hall is not only for the orchestra, but for the city, and for everyone.

Bruce Hodges writes about classical music for The Strad, and has contributed articles to Lincoln Center, Playbill, New Music Box, London’s Southbank Centre, Strings, and Overtones, the magazine of the Curtis Institute of Music. His is a former columnist for The Juilliard Journal, and former North American editor for Seen and Heard International. He currently lives in Philadelphia.