Philadelphia Orchestra Celebrated Pride Month with All-Gay Concert

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday June 14, 2022

Blake Pouliot; Martha Graham Cracker, Jennifer Higdon Joseph Busches (director PGMC) &:Yannick Nezet-Seguin
Blake Pouliot; Martha Graham Cracker, Jennifer Higdon Joseph Busches (director PGMC) &:Yannick Nezet-Seguin   

As everyone settled into Verizon Hall this past June 2 for the Philadelphia Orchestra's first Pride concert, featuring LGBTQ+ composers, musicians, and singers, the inimitable Martha Graham Cracker's voice addressed the audience with instructions about masks and turning off cell phones, and a reminder. "Since this is not Florida say GAY as much as you want...," which the audience met with soccer stadium-level wild enthusiasm. It was the first of many sublime community moments in what proved to be one of the most inspiring musical nights to remember.

Seconds later, musical director-conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin bounded onstage in a buff summer shirt, T-dance boots, and signature blonde buzz, and launched the orchestra into Leonard Bernstein's overture to "Candide."

In the Verizon choir loft were members of the Philadelphia Gay Men's Chorus, who performed composer Joseph Martins' oratorio "The Awakening" and followed with a moving chorale arrangement of Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters."

Yannick introduced an early work by Samuel Barber, composed when the gay composer attended the Curtis Institute of Music, where he fell in love with fellow composer Gian Carlo Menotti. The orchestra performed selections from Barber's "Suite from Souvenirs" ("Hesitation and Galop"), a collaboration with choreographer Martha Graham. Her near-namesake, Martha Graham Cracker (no relation), sashayed onstage for further backstory about the composer, but paused to say, "I am pinching myself and I would also like Yannick to pinch me." This maestro was glad to oblige. But then it was all about the music, and the orchestra conjured Barber's waltz-tango sinfonia to its full symphonic flower.

Later, the flirting continued between The Diva and the Maestro in repartee about little-known facts of Philadelphia's Gay history from pre-Stonewall days, starting with the LGBTQ+ sit-in at Deweys' diner on Broad St. Martha, who regularly belts out rock songs at Joe's Pub in New York, performed a whispery, intimate rendition of the nostalgic gay anthem "Over the Rainbow."

Pulitzer-Prize winning composer Jennifer Higdon, a longtime Philadelphia resident, introduced her piece "Fanfare Ritmico," and expressed her gratitude to the orchestra for commissioning her early symphonic work. Higdon said she composed this piece with a millennial theme of "moving forward with hope." Its percussive, sonic orchestrations engulfed the concert hall.

The next work, "Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra," by gay composer John Corigliano, was equally thrilling, with the virtuoso Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot making his Philadelphia Orchestra debut with the piece. Nezet-Seguin told the audience, "This music  was written by a gay composer, conducted by an out conductor, and we chose an out gay performer."

Pouliot threw his body into the piece as he delivered Corigliano's fiery solo passages that gave way to the piece's tender central themes. Meanwhile, the orchestra weighed in with equally volatile passages that threatened to drown out the soloist, but Pouliot played with equal fury, insisting to be heard through the chaos.

Nezet-Seguin's concert closer was Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's "Waltz Scene" from his ballet score to "Swan Lake," a perennial showpiece for the Fabulous Philadelphians legendary strings. Before the performance, Nezet-Seguin spoke about how Tchaikovsky was a national hero forced to lead a secret, tragic life as a gay man in czarist Russia.

On June 5 the orchestra was back for a season-closing performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. A block away, the city's Pride Parade was in full swing. But it was also a day of tragedy after a mass shooting that took place the night before, resulting in three deaths and 11 people with multiple injuries. Before the concert, Nezet-Seguin made a plea to the audience for action on the scourge of gun violence in America. Then he led Beethoven's mighty 9th, the composer's plea for humanity and peace in the world. More than a symphonic masterpiece, it is a testament to universal humanity.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.