Saturday, April 9, 2016

Philly Bucket List: The Philly Orchestra

We’ll be leaving Philadelphia to return to Kansas this summer: “Philadelphia Bucket List” is an occasional series of posts about what we’ll miss about this great city.

The first time I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra was in September 2008, on Dilworth Plaza — now Dilworth Park — at City Hall. My son had been born weeks earlier and we were crazed with a lack of sleep; an outdoor concert seemed an appropriate way to allow us to have a cultural experience in our new city where an infant would be appropriate.

My son at his first orchestra concert, September 2008.
I remember a couple of things about that night. First: It was kind of chilly. Second: An officer had been killed in the line of duty that day. Mayor Nutter took the stage and said the death nearly caused him to cancel the concert. Instead, the orchestra opened with addition to the evening’s program: Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”

I wept. The beauty of the playing, the sad occasion, and the extreme stress of new parenthood combined to undermine my defenses.

Since then, we’ve loved the orchestra. We haven’t always had the money to go see a concert and pay for a babysitter, but that was OK: The group plays free concerts a few times a year in neighborhoods around the city; we’d made long treks by SEPTA bus to take advantage. It’s not been an easy decade for the orchestra — there was a bankruptcy a few years ago, after the recession — but the sound has always remained  powerful, masterful. These are world-class musicians, and I will miss having regular access to this experience.

So this week, when the orchestra announced a free “pop-up” concert, we realized it might be our last chance to hear and see them in person. We took our son — just a few months shy of eight years old now — and went. We were surrounded by families taking their children, too, to their first-ever concert.

Our family at the orchestra, April 2016.
We heard selections from “Peer Gynt,” a personal favorite. (Our son bopped along in the seat next to me, excited by the thumping power of “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”) And the official program ended with “Appalachian Spring.” When the piece entered the passage that quotes the Shaker hymn, “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free,” much of the audience hummed along — encouraged, this time, by the fabulous conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin.

I thought about the Shakers. How they had made and shared that music. How it was passed down so that Aaron Copland could use it in this piece, then amplify it out to generations of music listeners — all so we could arrive in this moment, humming an old hymn together. I thought about how art had bound us all together, across generations and a society, with this shared reference. I loved it.

And I wept.


Balancement said...

Don't, just don't leave Philadelphia. You will regret it more than you could ever imagine. Trust me, I know -- I would bar-be-cue my dear old grandmama to be able to move back...

Edward Dougherty said...


Great appreciation for what you've done here, for the recollection (and its wonderful precision), and for always turning it back to the Orchestra itself.

It's been nearly a 40-year run for me, dating back to Amphitheater Rush Tickets ($2) at the Academy, then flowing through the possibly-sit-anywhere glory of the arrangement at Verizon Hall.

From the first exposure forward, willing to suffer a little for the art, particularly this one, as it seems your family was, too.

Can appreciate the sense of a formative foundation in exposing your young child and, who knows?, it might take. It didn't with mine, but then again the image of her moving her dinosaurs over that back rail of that back row in the Academy is compense enough for the efforts. And in a review of my own path, which was littered with Grateful Dead shows all over the country, even in places like Kansas, the impetus to come back to classical music popped out in the most unexpected ways, with unpredictable timings. But when it took - and powered by this particular ensemble - boy, I was all in. ​

It's a great organization, a great orchestra, and an even better art form. And one of this town's particular wonders is that it's so accessible, making this maybe one of the best classical music towns in the country.

Here's hoping your new surroundings allow for more such discoveries. Thank you for the effort here.

~ Ed Dougherty

Joel Mathis said...

Ed, thanks for your kind comments. J