Thursday, March 12, 2020: A date that will forever be etched into the history of The Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as the hearts and minds of its musicians, staff, supporters, and audiences.
Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads The Philadelphia Orchestra on March 12, 2020, in a program of works by Beethoven and Iman Habibi played to an empty Verizon Hall and livestreamed on Facebook.
On that pivotal day, just prior to the City of Philadelphia’s shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Philadelphia Orchestra convened what would be its last live, full Orchestra performance of 2020. The concert featured Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 and the world premiere of Iman Habibi’s Jeder Baum spricht, performed to an eerily empty Verizon Hall and livestreamed on Facebook.
In his heartfelt introduction to the program, Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin noted, “As we now share this music with you virtually, I know that this will help us go through these very strange and difficult times for the entire world.” Before raising his baton he added, “We do hope that our hearts will reach yours.”
This statement was prophetic. The powerful March 12 concert marked a long absence from the stage but a new era of digital transformation and audience engagement for an Orchestra with a long record of media milestones.
Fast forward to July 2021. From Vail, Colorado, where the Orchestra was performing as part of the Bravo! Vail Music Festival, President and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky reflected on the Orchestra’s steadfast efforts to inspire and connect people through music during the COVID crisis. He recognized the musicians for their extraordinary commitment, creativity, courage, and agility—quickly learning how to collaborate remotely from their homes, and pivoting toward smaller ensemble performances with social distancing and other safety protocols in place.
The Orchestra gave the world premiere of Valerie Coleman’s Seven O’Clock Shout in June 2020,part of the Virtual Philadelphia Orchestra. Commissioned by the Orchestra in response to the pandemic, and inspired by frontline workers, the piece was recorded by musicians individually from their homes.
“The Orchestra has been extraordinarily busy throughout the pandemic,” Tarnopolsky said. “We started with the Virtual Philadelphia Orchestra, which was launched within weeks of COVID, putting out archival material, newly created material, talks, seminars, and educational content that we shared globally. Then we launched the Digital Stage, our vehicle to connect with audiences in Philadelphia, nationally, and internationally, by sharing specially created concerts.”
Looking toward the coming season, aptly titled Forward, he continued, “The Digital Stage is going to stay with us as a complement to what’s happening live on the stage, so we can share these beautiful performances with many newly found audience members. Some really exciting developments are here to stay.”
What other lessons were learned this past year that the Orchestra will carry into the future?
“Always be true to your values. That’s what we did,” Tarnopolsky said emphatically, pointing to the Orchestra’s core set of values known as the Philadelphia Way. In such a tumultuous time, this guiding vision continually inspired the organization to be exceptional, authentic, diverse, inclusive, innovative, and a convener—both online and (when possible) in person.
Furthermore, the Orchestra has doubled down on its commitment to Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access Strategies (IDEAS), an initiative it originally launched in the spring of 2019 under the leadership of Doris Parent, with guidance from Accordant Advisors. In October of 2020, the Orchestra appointed Parent to the new role of vice president of IDEAS and strategic partnerships, becoming one of the first orchestras in the nation to add this important position to the senior leadership team.
”We really want IDEAS integrated in everything we do, so that it’s part of our DNA. Every department is using IDEAS as the lens moving forward,” explained Parent, a woman of color who has worked at the Orchestra since 2011, most recently as senior managing director of institutional development.
Yannick and the Orchestra are joined by bass-baritone/activist Davóne Tines for Sermon on a Digital Stage concert in May 2021. That performance will be repeated live in Verizon Hall November 5–7 and again on the Digital Stage November 24–December 1, 2021. Photo: Jeff Fusco
The comprehensive IDEAS effort includes expanding audience access; increasing recruitment and retention of diverse staff, board, and musicians; and including BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and women artists, conductors, and composers.
On this latter point, Parent noted, “We’re showing that there is room in the canon for more than what we’ve presented traditionally. It’s exciting to see how our values have manifested [this fall] in the guest artists, the repertoire, and just thinking differently.”
As it returns to its Philadelphia home, Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, the Orchestra is adhering to city, state, and federal health and safety protocols to keep the well-being of all a top priority. And the fall season clearly reflects IDEAS, the social justice movement in America, and the drive toward creative equity and inclusion in the world of orchestral music. Season highlights include a celebration of the pioneering Black composer Florence Price; the world premiere of Wynton Marsalis’s Tuba Concerto (an Orchestra commission), led by Nézet-Séguin and featuring Principal Tuba Carol Jantsch; and a performance of “Vigil,” a collaborative work by Igee Dieudonné and singer-activist Davóne Tines, dedicated to the memory of Breonna Taylor.
According to Tarnopolsky, “Music can express thoughts and ideas that words alone cannot. The Philadelphia Orchestra and cultural institutions have a responsibility to help bring greater justice and equity to the world. We must speak loudly and powerfully. We’ve seen firsthand how music can help us better understand each other and our world amidst profound social change.” He noted that the partnership of The Philadelphia Orchestra and the Kimmel Center, announced in June, will help further this important mission.
“We want to ensure inclusive, diverse, and equitable access to world-class, inspiring performances, and that’s what this partnership allows,” said Tarnopolsky, who is leading the newly formed The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center, Inc.
Beyond the walls of Verizon Hall, the Orchestra is focused on connecting with audiences worldwide through its Digital Stage, with eight concerts available for streaming this fall. Additionally, the Orchestra is continuing its HearTOGETHER podcast, launched in 2020, which features artists and activists who share stories that connect, challenge, and unite us through the power of music. New episodes will be released monthly throughout the fall.
HearTOGETHER is a monthly podcast series of dialogue and music with industry thought leaders and guest artists who explore racial and social justice, and creative equity and inclusion, through the lens of the world of orchestral music.
While expanding its global and digital reach, the Orchestra remains firmly committed to its hometown and its proud legacy of community engagement. Launched in October 2020, Our City, Your Orchestra (OCYO) is a series celebrating the diversity and vibrancy of the Philadelphia region through free, online concerts performed by Orchestra musicians at Black-owned businesses and community, nonprofit, and cultural institutions. Each program’s musical selections are chosen specifically for, and in collaboration with, the host organization. The end result is a compelling, documentary-style video that tells the inspiring stories of each location.
Violinist Juliette Kang, the Orchestra’s first associate concertmaster, has been moved by her participation in the OCYO performances. “First and foremost, these programs were a way to stay connected to audiences and feel like we had something to give to the world in terms of our music and to stay relevant in our communities,” Kang said.
“The programs are a really collaborative effort between the Orchestra and the hosting institution,” she continued, recalling an OCYO concert in collaboration with Project HOME, a Philadelphia nonprofit focused on breaking the cycle of poverty and homelessness. “The idea was that no matter who you are, and what kind of trauma you’ve had in your life, there’s a place to find some succor and nurturing. It felt very meaningful.”
At UrbanPromise in Camden, New Jersey, an OCYO program led to a serendipitous collaboration with student leaders from Africa, who joined the Orchestra quartet for rousing performances of traditional African songs.
Foreground, l to r: Concertmaster David Kim, violinist Daniel Han, Assistant Principal Cello Yumi Kendall, and violist Anna Marie Ahn Petersen are joined by UrbanPromise Fellows for an Our City, Your Orchestra presentation at UrbanPromise in Camden. Photo: Jeff Fusco
“When the Orchestra showed up, it wasn’t a pre-packaged thing. The collaboration between the Orchestra and our folks created something fun and unique,” said Bruce Main, founder of UrbanPromise. The community-based, nonprofit youth organization serves 500 children and teens each year, providing after-school programs, summer camps, two private schools, job training, and programs that promote well-being. In a year when most in-person fundraising events were cancelled, UrbanPromise decided to create a virtual event around the release of the OCYO video—and raised more than $200,000. “It was really a godsend,” Main said.
With the fall season now underway, the Orchestra, its partners, and patrons surely bring a newfound understanding of the power of music to unify, uplift, connect, and communicate as only music can. Back in Vail at the Festival, when asked how it felt to reunite with audiences, Tarnopolsky took a long pause before replying, “It’s indescribable.”
Karen Gross is a writer, singer, host of the She Rocked It podcast, and a proud Philadelphia native.