I’ve attended between 200 and 300 orchestra concerts since the mid 1980s, with my busiest concert-going period beginning in the late 1990s and lasting about a decade.. My home orchestra, the Philadelphia, were on stage for most of those performances, but I also began traveling up to New York to see other elite orchestras from Europe and the U.S. during the late 1990s. That stopped for the most part when those orchestras began coming to Philadelphia, following the Kimmel’s opening.
I couldn’t come close to listing all of the concerts I’ve attended over the past three and a half decades, but there are a handful that standout in my memory as being transcendent experiences. It’s not easy to pick the ten best, but I decided to give it a shot. I’m going to list them in chronological order, as it would be too difficult to rank the ten.
Claudio Abbado conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 1999
The Berlin Philharmonic (BPO) is an orchestra with a legendary history. Their music directors have included Arthur Niksch, Wilhelm Furtwangler and Herbert von Karajan, three of the all-time greats of the podium. So I was thrilled when I went up to New York during the Autumn of 1999 to see them perform live for the first time. When the BPO plays New York, they typically do a run of three concerts. I purchased tickets for two of them on consecutive nights. They played Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 the first evening and it was unquestionably the greatest orchestral performance I had attended until then. The Orchestra’s sound was overwhelming, while Abbado’s interpretation of Mahler’s final complete symphony was a powerhouse. I can still recall my friend and I sharing a glance at each other after the first movement. Both of our jaws were nearing the floor.
Interestingly, I had a relatively negative impression of the BPO’s performance of Bruckner’s ninth symphony the following night. But I’ll never forget how great that Mahler ninth was.
Simon Rattle conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 2000
A few months after seeing the Berlin Philharmonic perform Mahler’s ninth, I returned to Carnegie Hall to see the most hyped Philadelphia Orchestra program in quite some time. I traveled to New York for this concert because the acoustics at Carnegie Hall are superior to those at the Academy of Music; and the Kimmel Center, for that matter. The program consisted entirely of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, a massive piece for orchestra, vocal soloists and chorus. British conductor Simon Rattle was a very hot commodity and a big favorite of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Following the Gurrelieder performances he led in Philadelphia and New York, the Orchestra put on a full-court press in an effort to lure him as music director. It didn’t work, but the memory of this concert will be with me forever. I mentioned that the BPO Mahler 9th was the greatest orchestral performance I had seen at that point. It had stiff competition from the Philadelphia Orchestra on this night. When it was over, the audience reaction was unlike any I had heard before or since at a classical concert. It sounded more like the screaming you hear at rock concerts.
Yuri Temirkanov conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Academy of Music in 2000
Later in 2000, another favorite Philadelphia Orchestra guest conductor came to town to lead Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7. Yuri Temirkanov made his reputation in the Soviet Union, but he had a long history of conducting in Philadelphia and had led the Orchestra on tour once or twice. On this night, he whipped the musicians into a fury in music that was composed to commemorate the Nazi siege of Leningrad during World War II. I’ve heard several live performances of the work since, but none has equaled the one led by Temirkanov at the Academy. In fact, the only other concert I saw him conduct, a few years later at the Kimmel Center, also featured a great performance of Brahms’ second symphony that I considered including here.
Wolfgang Sawallisch conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Academy of Music in 2001
I would argue that the best period for the Philadelphia Orchestra during the 35 plus years I’ve been attending their concerts was from around 1998-2002. Their music director during that period was Wolfgang Sawallisch. The sound he drew from the orchestra was like a breathtaking wall-of-sound. My impression of him during the previous few years, at the beginning of his tenure in Philly, was that he was a fairly safe conductor who led nice, but not really memorable performances for the most part. That changed in the late 90s when his conducting took on greater intensity that was reminiscent of the legendary Schumann symphony cycle he recorded in Dresden during the early 1970s. And no single performance from that great era in Philly stands out more for me than one he led of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in February of 2001. I won’t hesitate to call it the greatest live Brahms’ performance I’ve ever heard. I was seated almost to the side of the Academy stage and had a great view of Sawallisch throughout. His control over the Orchestra was a wonder to see. A flick of his pinky was all it took to draw that wonderful Philadelphia Sound.
Bernard Haitink conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 2002
I posted recently on the death of conductor Bernard Haitink, who I considered to be the greatest living maestro at the time of his sad passing. I only saw him conduct live once. He led the Vienna Philharmonic, the Orchestra more associated with Bruckner’s music than any other, in that composer’s Symphony No. 8, one of my favorite pieces of music. Expectations were high and they were met. Both conductor and Orchestra knew the music inside out and it showed. I only wish I had seen Maestro Haitink more often while I had the chance.
Daniel Barenboim conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Kimmel Center in 2005
When it comes to the greatest orchestral performances I’ve ever heard in person, there were two from this single concert that would have to be in the running. Daniel Barenboim was in his final season as music director of the Chicago Symphony (CSO). I can only say it’s too bad he didn’t stay longer after what I heard that night. He led the great CSO in incandescent performances of both the Prelude to Wagner’s Parsifal and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. In fact, I’ve heard many performances of the seventh symphony, both in person and otherwise, and this was the best of them all. While the entrance of the strings to start the Parsifal Prelude absolutely took my breath away.
Christoph Eschenbach conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kimmel Center in 2005
Later that year, I heard another live Beethoven performance that stands out as otherworldly for me. Christoph Eschenbach’s tenure as music director in Philadelphia did not last long and would certainly not be called successful. But on this night, he was the conductor I expected him to be when his appointment was announced. My expectations for him were high initially because of his reputation for approaching performances in what can be called a Furtwangler-like manner. That is he believed in approaching each performance as a unique experience rather than drilling his orchestra to perform a piece the exact same way night after night. And this performance of the Eroica was very reminiscent of a couple of the Furtwangler performances I’ve heard on CD. In fact, I was so taken with it that I went back a few nights later to hear them play it again, and I liked that performance even more than the first one.
Riccardo Chailly conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra at the Kimmel Center in 2007
The Gewandhaus of Leipzig is one of the oldest orchestras in the world, so it was with great pleasure that I made plans to hear them perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 under their then music director, Riccardo Chailly. Yet for some reason, my expectations before the concert were not exceptionally high. In spite of their great tradition, I didn’t view the Gewandhaus as being in the same class as the top tier of European orchestras; which I and many others generally view as the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. I was taught a lesson that day when the old Orchestra gave a Mahler performance that rivalled the Abbado-BPO ninth as the best I’ve heard live.
Daniel Barenboim conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 2007
Later that same month as the Leipzig Gewandhaus concert in Philadelphia, I took the train up to New York to see the Vienna Philharmonic with Daniel Barenboim on the podium. He was gone from Chicago by then and I was very excited about hearing him lead Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 with arguably the greatest of Bruckner orchestras; the Vienna Philharmonic. The evening didn’t go as I expected it to. I wasn’t crazy about the Bruckner seventh. But the performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 before intermission was absolutely remarkable. I can’t remember any other occasion when I’ve heard music flow from an orchestra so naturally. It was like they were born to play that symphony.
Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kimmel Center in 2012
Following the disappointing Eschenbach years and an interim period during which Charles Dutoit led the Philadelphia Orchestra, the young maestro, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, was appointed music director. He opened his tenure with a run of performances of Verdi’s Requiem. The piece had been a big favorite of mine for years, but I had grown somewhat jaded to it by then, probably due to listening to it too often for too long. Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphians snapped me out of that on this evening. There was a longer-than-usual pause after the opening vocal section. I was sitting back in my chair when Yannick ushered in the Dies Irae, arguably the most thrilling musical passage ever composed. But be that as it may, I still wasn’t prepared for the savage intensity with which it was performed that night. I was jolted into an upright position in my seat as if someone had smacked me in the back of the head when they broke into it. I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
While I’ve generally been pleased with Nezet-Seguin as music director in Philadelphia, that night at the beginning of his tenure still stands out as his high point for me.
It felt like I floated out of the concert hall in a state of bliss following these concerts. I’m not sure I’ll ever experience that feeling again given that I don’t go to nearly as many live performances as I used to and haven’t seen an out-of-town orchestra in some years. But I’m relatively content to cherish the memories I’ve relived here.