Thursday, May 8, 2014


Philadelphia stinks. I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense. When the humidity and temperature rise, the city has an actual, fetid smell. Stand over a storm drain in Center City on a hot day in July and inhale. You won’t do it twice. We called it the “Philly Phunk” when I was in college—a music major attempt at a double entendre. We should have stuck to learning our scales.

Although this odor is one of the city’s less-than-endearing qualities, it’s almost permissible when you stack it up against some of the other traits of the City of Brotherly Love. We have an abundance of “authorities” in our town—housing authority, water authority, parking authority, port authority. Google “Philadelphia authority corruption” and you’ll get 2,750,000 hits (actual number, as of this writing), the first 1,000,000 of which are, in fact, relevant.

My partner and I are both fans of historic architecture. I’m an armchair architect, he is an actual architect. Because of this predilection, we purchased a lovely Victorian house in 2008. September 22nd, 2008, to be exact. I remember the date vividly, as on September 18th, Ben Bernanke famously said “We might not have an economy on Monday”. And we were set to sign on a mortgage that very Monday. Thanks, Bear Stearns and Lehmann Brothers. Blessedly, neither George nor I lost our jobs (though it was touch-and-go for a while…), so we could keep up with our mortgage. Nevertheless, we will be residing in our house for the foreseeable future.

The city is broke. Fiscally insolvent. Running deficits. No money. Because of this, the Board of Revision of Taxes reassessed the tax value of (supposedly) every property through a process they called “Actual Value Initiative”—a nice way of saying “we think you all were underpaying on your taxes, so now’s the time to buck up”. This coming on the heels of a 2% sales tax increase (we’re now up to 8%), and the fact that Philadelphia has this quirky thing called “local wage tax” (3.9% for residents)…and it all starts to add up. I’m not a TEA party idiot—I realize the importance of paying taxes. I like the cops and firemen to be there when we need them, I like the tap water to be clean, I like the sewers to work, and I like the schools to be able to afford luxurious things like…copy paper.

Because I am a white male in 21st Century America, I get to complain about first world problems. (If you now see me as some sort of privileged pariah, please re-read that sentence with your tongue firmly planted in your cheek). I often bemoan the fact that we are anchored to our 140-year old Victorian ark that requires more maintenance and upkeep than a British sports car. Once, over a lunch, I made milk come out of our Headmaster’s nose as I referred to historic structures as being like aging movie stars—they require constant facelifts and look really great in dim light. The lion’s share of our income goes to our labor of love. Read: “Wah wah wah, we can’t take vacations!”

Our city’s cultural hub is the Kimmel Center. It is the home of our beloved Philadelphia Orchestra (which recently emerged from bankruptcy…seeing a trend?), and a center for all things music. There are two concert halls in it—Verizon Hall and the Perelman Theater. When it opened in the fall of 2000, the entire city (me included) was excited about it. Now, almost 15 years later, I refer to it as “a dead mall with two nice rooms in it”. It’s dated, ugly, and has some huge design flaws. Verizon and Perelman have held up acoustically and somewhat aesthetically, but the building itself is an abject failure. The glass roof makes it look like a failed design for one of the Biosphere projects, and the building has ZERO relationship to the street. To try and correct this, Kimmel Center Inc. has recently installed a trendy wine-bar in the space that was once the Orchestra’s gift shop. It’s a prix fixe affair—at $175 a plate. “Open and democratic” are not the first words that come to mind. I’m not saying we need a McDonalds in that space, but something that is a little less “off-putting” that might draw in the average ticket purchaser would have been, in my bloviated opinion, a better choice.

The place is also just downright worn out. Just because the city hasn’t done maintenance on any of their buildings in 25 years doesn’t mean the Kimmel has to follow suit. But old habits die hard.

So I was already crabby last night when George and I were at the glorified bell jar-turned concert hall to hear Emmanuel Ax play a solo recital in the Perelman Theater (the smaller hall). Though a pianist by training and trade, I somewhat share Stravinsky’s opinion of the piano—a colorless instrument with the potential to be a real bore. And Mr. Ax was playing a mostly Brahms program (snore). Better hit Starbucks, it’s going to be a long night.

Oh, how I was wrong.

The Brahms F# minor sonata is one of those works that takes down pianists. It’s very developed, extremely dense, and has a harmonic complexity not often associated with Mr. Brahms. If you’re not a musician, here’s the translation: it’s long, has lots of notes, and the pianist spends a lot of time on the black keys. The performance was stunning. To hear an artist make actual MUSIC out of that piece was really something. There were two modern works on the program (homages to Brahms). Both were done very well. He finished with the great “Variations on a Theme of Haydn”. This piece is the musical equivalent of those Tough-Mudder races that keep appearing on my Facebook feed. It has every challenge imaginable in it.

And Manny brought it home.

What’s my point in all of this? Here’s the thing—this was a last-minute affair that we went to, on the good graces of a generous neighbor who happened to have some extra tickets. We didn’t have to plan an elaborate trip, hotel rooms, meals, or anything. We just showed up at the Biosphere, walked in the door, and listened to one of the greatest living pianists. No fuss. Just great music.

And that, my friends, is why I live in Philadelphia.

(Despite the smell.)

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