Stretch Your Fingers And Your Appreciation Of Music Under A Tinted-Glass Ceiling

Three more hours in Philadelphia until I had to leave for the airport. Do I squeeze in lunch at City Tavern and dessert at the Franklin Fountain? How about running through the just-opened Museum of the American Revolution? Or should I pick up some Beiler’s doughnuts at the Reading Terminal Market?

With so many appealing choices, but too little time to do any of them justice, I decided to remember what my grandmother told me about recognizing my limitations. I decided to walk a block from my hotel on the Avenue of the Arts to take a free tour of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. And I’m so glad that I did.

Our story begins with the “Grand Old Lady of Locust Street.” Philadelphia’s need for a performance space prompted construction of a building modeled on Milan’s La Scala opera house in 1855. Two years later, the Academy of Music opened its doors, first for an inaugural ball and then for a performance of Giuseppi Verdi’s Il trovatore. In the years that followed, audiences settled into its luxurious red-and-gold interior for the American premieres of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, Charles Gounod’s Faust, and Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Enrico Caruso, Marian Anderson and Luciano Pavarotti have sung here. Aaron Coplenad, Gustav Mahler, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff have conducted on its stage. Vladimir Horowitz, Itzhak Perlman and Isaac Stern have also performed here.

The Academy of Music has also hosted several historic civic events. In 1872, it saw President Ulysses S. Grant nominated for a second term at the Republican National Convention. The following year, Buffalo Bill Cody was the star of a circus held here. Susan B. Anthony stood on its stage, making her case for women to have the right to vote. During World War II, Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller and Bette Davis were among the stars who entertained over two million in military service in its Stage Door Canteen.

The oldest opera house in the United States was the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1900 to 2001. This is where it became one of the world’s greatest orchestras.

However, an opera house wasn’t the best place for the orchestra to play. For years, it looked for a new home, finally finding it, just steps away, in 1998. One city block of land that once housed the only one-level parking lot in Center City Philadelphia was repurposed as the site of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. To find it, follow a portion of the Philadelphia Music Alliance’s Walk of Fame, a collection of over 100 bronze plaques honoring Philadelphia-area musicians and music professionals who have made a significant contribution to music.

The center is named for philanthropist Sidney Kimmel, the son of a Philadelphia cab driver, found financial success with his Jones Apparel Group, which produces the Jones New York and Evan-Picone clothing lines. Dorrance Hamilton, heiress of the Campbell Soup Company, was another philanthropist who contributed to the project.

Architect Rafael Viῆoly was commissioned to create a structure of glass, steel and brick to enclose two performance spaces known as Verizon Hall and the Perelman Theater. Transitional glass in the 150-foot-high barrel-vaulted roof allows for 237 different gradations of tinting.

To ensure that performances would not be disrupted by the sounds of the subway running directly beneath the Kimmel Center, designers built both theaters on top of 32-inch-thick black rubber pads that absorb sound and vibration.

A cello provided the inspiration for the mahogany interior of Verizon Hall. Curving wooden strips and a moveable ceiling provide acoustics so exceptional that microphones are not needed.

Eight inches of insulation and 100 16-foot doors keep wanted sound in the hall and unwanted sound outside. The hall’s exterior is made of macare wood from the mountains of western Africa.

Named for Ronald Perelman, whose company is an investor in Revlon cosmetics, the center’s versatile recital hall has a turntable stage which can be transformed from a conventional proscenium stage to a horseshoe-shaped arena. Main-level seats can be rolled down and replaced with a flat floor. Ropes, pulleys, and counterweights raise and lower sets for theatrical productions.

Philadelphians started converging on the center in 2001 for performances in both of these magnificent spaces. Ten-dollar rush tickets are available two hours before each performance, no matter what the original ticket price was. For a one-time payment of $25, college students can see over 80 concerts during a season.

The afternoon I was there, hundreds of people were descending from all directions to attend the Philadelphia Orchestra’s performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43, and Salonen’s Nyx. Earlier that week, in the Perelman Theater, Emanuel Ax performed Schubert’s Four Impromptus, Chopin’s Impromptus No. 1. Op. 29 and No. 2, Op. 36, Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B Minor, Op. 58, and a Philadelphia premiere of a new work by Chicago-based composer Samuel Adams.

In the space between the two performance spaces, concertgoers can watch archival footage of noted pianists as a Steinway grand piano magically plays the piece. They can also compare the span of their hand with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s, which is said to have spanned an octave and a half.

They can also see a rotating exhibition of contemporary works of art from the collection of Al West and his daughter, Paige. “After Vermeer 2,” Devorah Sperber’s 2006 recreation of Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, consists of 5,024 spools of thread hanging from a stainless steel ball chain. View the work through a clear acrylic sphere and the abstract pattern comes into recognizable focus.

Upstairs in the roof garden, they can even take in a yoga class.

Daily tours of the Kimmel Center are offered in 11 different languages, all at no charge. Tours of the Academy of Music are held on select dates.

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