PHILADELPHIA — A symphony debuting this week both captures and celebrates the distinctive sounds and sizzle of Philadelphia, from veteran radio announcer Merrill Reese’s call of the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory to a cook chopping steak on the grill at one of this city’s iconic cheesesteak joints.
Composer Tod Machover listened to hundreds of hours of recordings and used about a third of all the sounds he received. He selected those he said had “strong personalities” and conveyed some important aspect of the city.
Screaming is even a part of the vocal material.
The Philadelphia Orchestra , accompanied by a 250-person choir, will perform “Philadelphia Voices” on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at its main performance hall and on April 10 at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin said it’s “a large-scale work that pairs The Philadelphia Orchestra with all of the talent of the city — of various origins, ages, and backgrounds.”
This is Machover’s sixth city symphony and the second to feature an American city. He recorded the sounds of Detroit in 2015, creating a symphony that included the sound of Henry Ford’s first engine. The project was detailed in the documentary “Symphony in D.”
“I definitely want to celebrate the cities I go into,” said Machover, an MIT professor and electronic music innovator who was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music. “For me, the real interest in doing this project is to get ordinary people thinking about something they care about and everybody cares about where they live.”
This is the first of his symphonies to focus on and incorporate voice.
Often the instruments, choruses and city sounds are interwoven, sometimes blending together and other times clashing.
There were certain iconic places (like Love Park and inside the giant, walk-through model heart at The Franklin Institute) and themes (the nation’s founding in Philadelphia, its status as the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection) that Machover felt obliged to represent in the work.
The 30-minute-long symphony’s two prominent sound solos were also an easy fit: a “cheesesteak interlude” drawn from the kitchen of Pat’s King of Steaks, with percussion accompaniment, and a collage of Reese’s announcement of the final seconds of the Super Bowl.
“With the steaks sizzling and the chopping and the spatula moving and the chef talking about how many cheesesteaks people ate per day, how many people (who work) there ate per day and what cheesesteaks mean to Philadelphia, it’s just a great combination of sounds everybody will recognize,” Machover said.
After getting the NFL’s permission to use Eagles’ announcer Reese’s triumphant end-of-game call, Machover wrote a loud chord for the orchestra to play as the rival New England Patriots’ tried to score a final time.
“Then the orchestra stops, the chorus stops, and it’s just the game,” Machover said. “It goes into Merrill Reese screaming, all by itself, and it’s kind of special.”
Reese has been the Eagles play-by-play announcer for over 40 years, and his voice is instantly recognizable to any city sports fan. For a full 30 seconds, he is heard shouting: “The game is over! The Philadelphia Eagles are Super Bowl champions! Eagles fans everywhere, this is for you! Let the celebration begin!”
Machover asked some students what words defined Philadelphia and teenage writers their thoughts on democracy. He recorded lively bird songs at the Philadelphia Zoo and a music historian talking about jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.
A trip to the Museum of the American Revolution resulted in the sounds of children training on drums and shouting “Huzzah!” At the National Constitution Center, newly sworn-in citizens were asked their thoughts on the state of the country.
Philadelphia resident and poet Jacob Winterstein helped connect Machover with other local artists. He also took Machover on a bike tour through Center City, which was recorded for the project.
“He tried to go deeper than the classical things Philadelphia is associated with — American history, sports teams, sandwiches — and beyond the most easy narrative of Philadelphia,” Winterstein said.
His Philadelphia-inspired poem “Block Party” is featured in the symphony. These individual neighborhood celebrations happen in all corners of the city, wealthy and struggling, and are enjoyed by residents of all colors and beliefs.
“Even in our separateness, the fact that we do something in a similar way shows our collectiveness,” he said.