Classical Source: Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin at Carnegie Hall – Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, Tod Machover’s Philadelphia Voices, and Pictures at an Exhibition
Reviewed by Lewis M. Smoley
Tod Machover’s Philadelphia Voices, in its New York premiere, is a truly contemporary work catering to today’s audiences who crave the familiar over the artistic. Not to say that this spectacular mélange for voices, orchestra and taped material garnered from Philadelphians themselves, is not musically creative but its focus is clearly to connect more with a wider audience. In Philadelphia Voices, Machover pieces together spoken material collected from thousands of Philadelphians and intersperses it with poetry and conversation sung by a vast chorus that combines contemporary melodic stylistic qualities with sometimes dense contrapuntal passages. The texts contributed by “folks like us” are strung together to celebrate aspects of Philadelphia that are enjoyed most by those who live and work there.
Machover’s background in both music and technology positions him to creatively integrate these two disciplines in a manner that audiences may find most intriguing. A graduate of the Juilliard School in New York, where he studied with such important composers and teachers as Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions, Machover became composer-in-residence to Pierre Boulez in 1978 at the then newly formed IRCAM in Paris. Machover’s interest in utilizing technological resources in musical composition took root, resulting in his joining the faculty of MIT at its new Media Laboratory.
Philadelphia Voices is the latest composition in Machover’s project called “city symphonies”. It is not surprising that this project alone has done wonders to enhance his reputation as the composer “wired into technology.” His efforts to explore local history from the ground up by an outreach approach that involves the people who identify with the city in which they live, has gone a long way to democratizing art music. He attempts to integrate the classical with everyday elements that are identified with the cities he celebrates, such as the sound of a sizzling Philly steak and the deafening cheers that accompanied the victory of the Philadelphia Eagles in the last Superbowl. Artificial, perhaps, but nonetheless it resonates with young audiences.