Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Philadelphia Story

When you stumble upon a party, it can be a good time. When you stumble upon a legend, it can be transcendent.

In Philadelphia for a software users group conference, I didn't exactly relish the thought of mingling at the post-program, organized-fun, 70's-themed bar crawl this evening, networking opportunities and hot programming tips notwithstanding. Stopped by the joint long enough to catch an unsettling glimpse of my fellow info-geeks wearing afro wigs and trying to squeeze past each other in the pub's narrow passageway. Recalled dorm and frat parties in college where I couldn't move for minutes at a time due to the unchecked crowds. Recalled not having actual "fun" on many such occasions, despite thinking that I was supposed to pretend to. Observed the substandard interpersonal distances, according to North American cultural standards. Played the "Who's In Charge Here, Anyway?" card, which I seem to deploy with increasing frequency, and hightailed it out of there.

Onto the streets; Broad Street, in particular. A cheery downtown on this night, actually, regardless of what you may have heard about Philly. Started strolling city blocks at pace, inhaling the late winter air; a terrific antidote for All-Day Hotel Meeting Chair Syndrome. Took in the early-evening sights in the theater district. Architecture, art schools, art supply stores, restaurants, theaters. Passed the Ormandy Ballroom, named for the late Philadelphia Orchestra conductor. Slowly began to incubate a notion to catch some sort of evening performance.

The Philadelphia Theater Company, down the street from the hotel? The grand opening of a promising new stage production was upcoming, but tonight, it was dark and empty. Another nearby theater, whose current offering features a post-feminist title and poster recalling certain Monologues? Nope. Just nope. The stage version of Amadeus, a few more blocks away? Intriguing, but too many notes for tonight. A large-ish building with the word "Symphony" splashed across the top? A mirage; it's a new condo project.

Then, along comes the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, an über-grand performing arts center with look-at-me lines. An amazing atrium; sweeping curves and lattices; your delighted eyes drawn up to the sky, back down and around. Not a right angle in the place. Now that's a venue! Fell in step with a slightly greying theater-district crowd, gathering with anticipation for some kind of show -- but what?

The Philly Pops, that's what, with longtime Philly Pops leader Peter Nero conducting and performing a 1950's-themed program. Much beloved in Philly, where he's invested the last three decades of his life delighting Pops audiences. Nero's 50+ years in the music trade earned him two Grammy Awards and placed him elbow-to-elbow with Sinatra, Mancini, all the greats of the post-war era.

The audience regulars were as appreciative as they were forgiving. I'd never seen so much hand-clapping and lip-syncing by seniors. Certain lightly rehearsed numbers and looseness in the cohesion of the instrumentals were beside the point, as the old-timers on stage and in the audience, both intermingled with music performers and aficionados young enough to be their adult grandchildren, gave and received a gentle, happy, slightly sloshed-sounding performance that had the feeling of one last round at the bar surrounded by the great songs of their -- anyone's -- youth.

Seeing and hearing Peter Nero play "The Way You Look Tonight" from my overhead perch in the third balcony, watching Nero's hands tease out the jazzy, swinging style from the song in that beautiful place, I felt I'd witnessed not just a performance but the curating of a priceless treasure by one who knows. A perfect martini, captured at the keyboard.

A reminder, also, that the "Who's In Charge Here, Anyway?" card is often the most valuable in the deck. My Philadelphia evening had regressed two decades, from the 1970's to the 1950's, but it took a great leap forward.

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