James Levine returning to conduct Philadelphia Orchestra [photos]

Of all the invited soloists, guest conductors, and commissioned composers coming to Philadelphia next season to work with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the biggest name is James Levine. The longstanding conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York is considered by many as the best conductor in the opera world, but has been hampered by illness for years.

In February, 2016, Levine will take the podium at Verizon Hall and guide the Philadelphia Orchestra through a program of Brahms, Ives, and Saint-Saëns. It will be his first gig outside New York City since a series of injuries and surgeries related to a chronic back condition that nearly forced him into retirement.

“Who wouldn’t come to Philadelphia to conduct this orchestra?” asked music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who personally asked Levine to guest conduct. “It’s a question of him having the willingness to conduct out of the met, after his illness, and knowing that he goes to the best orchestra to do so.”

On Tuesday evening Yannick and orchestra CEO Allison Vulgamore took the stage of Verizon Hall to announce their 2015-2016 season. The informal stage chat was interspersed with brief performances to give the audience a taste of upcoming concerts.

The amuse bouches includes excerpts from newly commissioned works written for specific members of the orchestra, including principle timpanist Don Liuzzi and principle clarinetist Ricardo Morales. The premiere of both concertos by Maurice Wright and Jonathan Leshnoff, respectively, will be in April 2016.

The lavishly produced 2015-2016 concert booklet, with handy calendar in the center, features a tiny, blue, fan-like icon next to select items. These are pieces that the orchestra had premiered — either American or World — during its 155-year history.

Nézet-Séguin began looking at the orchestra’s relationship to its own repertoire in the current season, via his 40/40 project, which identified 40 pieces not played by the orchestra in the last 40 years, to mark Nézet-Séguin’s 40th birthday. That impulse continues into next season.

“We have a similar approach, to inject programming with a lot of pieces which were premieres. Prokofiev 7th, Mahler 10th, Sebelius 5th,” said Nézet-Séguin. “We are expanding the horizons of our audiences while honoring our tradition and keeping the repertoire alive.”

Nézet-Séguin says his personal favorite next season will be Mahler’s 8th Symphony, heavy with choral arrangements for which he has always had an affinity.

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