Topic: Philadelphia tries Best of Beethoven and Tchaik.

Orchestra's greatest-hits concerts for those eager to know the score
By Peter Dobrin
Inquirer Music Critic
All nine Beethoven symphonies in 90 minutes!
Everything you ever wanted to know about Mozart's operas, chamber music, concertos and symphonies but were afraid to ask!

Romance, canons, Tchaikovsky!

No, it's not a cheesy late-night commercial for classical music's greatest hits, but a series of three highly unusual Philadelphia Orchestra concerts starting Wednesday night. The orchestra is taking single movements of various pieces and stringing them together on single programs. This is something Serious Orchestras generally don't do. The Philadelphia Orchestra has done it rarely or never - in any case, rarely enough that an orchestra spokeswoman wasn't quite sure.

As the orchestra's own marketing puts it in the title of one of the specially priced concerts: "Best of Tchaikovsky - Sugar Plums, Soldiers, and Swans . . . Oh my!"

There's no need for the orchestra to express fright, feigned or otherwise. Performing all nine Beethoven symphonies in 90 minutes by taking one movement from each may not get the Philadelphians respect from the aficionados, but these concerts were not designed for them. Though the orchestra's artistic vice president, Kathleen van Bergen, would not come out and say it, these shorter, 7 p.m. primers on three populist composers are clearly aimed at listeners looking for a friendly entry point into an art form that too often sends the message that everyone in the audience - except you - first walked into the concert hall about three decades ago.

There are legitimate artistic reasons for performing, say, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in its entirety, rather than just the first movement, as the orchestra will do Wednesday with the wonderful British pianist Leon McCawley. Mozart conceived the piece (like the violin concerto that Juliette Kang will excerpt) as a whole, not as an entry in a best-of-three-movements competition.

The first movement means something different when placed in context with the other two, and orchestras, as our most reliable keepers of the repertoire, have a certain obligation to respect the composer's wishes. (This, after all, is the orchestra that took musical scholarship seriously enough to send out a media advisory a few years ago telling the world that it had decided henceforth to render Mozart's middle name as Amadè rather than Amadeus.)

But the orchestra has another obligation to Mozart - to find him an audience. And not just any audience, but the largest one possible. So if the iPod shuffle format led by conductor Rossen Milanov is an effective means of taking the novice by the hand and leading him or her to a larger repertoire, the orchestra is serving a need greater than presenting, yet again, one movement of a Beethoven symphony in context with the other three.

How satisfying these concerts can be - for any listener - depends on how well-rehearsed and committed to the idea the musicians themselves sound, and how judiciously Milanov has chosen his material. The Beethoven evening (Thursday) could be dicey. One movement from each of the symphonies, one after the other. It's easy to think of the sound of the first and second symphonies next to each other. But the third and fourth? What can this kind of fast-vertical travel tell us, really, about Beethoven's progression as a radical composer, unless someone speaks from the stage pointing out what to listen for and what point each movement was meant to illustrate. Milanov is planning to speak at each concert, but it's not clear how extensive his remarks will be.

So think of the venture as an ensemble in an experimental mood, a place this orchestra should contemplate going more, especially when it comes to repertoire. Lack of entry points is the major challenge to orchestras everywhere. There happens to be an enormous, artistically respectable, and deeply satisfying orchestral repertoire that's rarely played these days and yet is responsible for giving millions of established classical listeners their first friendly experiences. Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio espagnol was once classical music's best ambassador, but in the last few decades it has somehow fallen from programs - and at a time when it's needed most.

Friday's Tchaikovsky program, with excerpts from The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, seems like a lovely throwback to a time when classical didn't take itself quite so seriously - before having fun at the orchestra, strangely, got mixed up with the question of how good the orchestra is.

The Philadelphia Orchestra's "best of" concerts are Wednesday (Mozart), Thursday (Beethoven), and Friday (Tchaikovsky) at 7 p.m. in the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets: $10-$80. Information: 215-893-1999 or