Free Neighborhood Chamber Concert Series Brings The Philadelphia Orchestra to Communities across the City
Last May, on the grounds of Philadelphia’s Historic Strawberry Mansion, four local students played djembe drums, their faces festively painted. Community members mingled, shared a meal, and met new friends from across the city. Longtime Strawberry Mansion resident Wayne Tomlin was honored for his commitment to the neighborhood’s children. And a string quartet and woodwind quintet from The Philadelphia Orchestra entertained the crowd with an hour-long performance.
A string quartet plays at Strawberry Mansion in 2018. Photo by Pete Checchia
This is just one snapshot of the Orchestra’s Free Neighborhood Chamber Concert Series, which is drawing enthusiastic new audiences from throughout the City of Brotherly Love—while redefining the very experience of classical music.
“The Philadelphia Orchestra is about sharing music, and there are many people in our community for whom the traditional concert hall isn’t the best place to hear and enjoy and be connected to music,” said Orchestra President and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky. “Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the musicians of the Orchestra, and our staff and board are committed to engaging with the diverse communities of Philadelphia. We look forward to expanding access to the arts in meaningful ways in the months and years ahead.”
The Free Neighborhood Chamber Concert Series is part of the Orchestra’s HEAR initiative—an acronym for a growing portfolio of programs designed to promote Health, champion music Education, eliminate barriers to Accessing the Orchestra, and maximize impact through Research. Specifically, the series aims to increase Access by introducing the music and musicians of the Orchestra to new audiences and venues outside of Verizon Hall.
Violinist Philip Kates shows his instrument to an audience member at the sensory-friendly Neighborhood Concert at the Eagles’s NovaCare Center in 2019. Photo by Pete Checchia
“We bill these as not just a concert but as a community event. It’s a family affair,” explained Dr. Michael Albaugh, the Orchestra’s director of education and community initiatives. “We want to make these events accessible and enjoyable, and strengthen the Orchestra’s ties to the city it calls home.”
Albaugh joined The Philadelphia Orchestra in late 2017, and he quickly got to work building new partnerships to expand its community programming. An offshoot of previous outreach efforts—including Free Neighborhood Concerts with the full orchestra held at Penn’s Landing and throughout the region—the Free Neighborhood Chamber Concert Series is inspired by the idea of “bringing the Orchestra to you,” Albaugh said.
“We’ve chosen demographics and communities that we have learned through research don’t normally have access to the Orchestra,” he continued. “Our goal is to deepen our community connections and develop long-term relationships with these new audiences and venues.”
Through generous support from the William Penn Foundation and PNC Arts Alive, the Free Neighborhood Chamber Concert Series has grown from one to four to now six events annually. Since 2018, the concerts have taken place at schools, parks, churches, and other community hubs around the city. The series has included two full-orchestra, sensory-friendly concerts at the Philadelphia Eagles’ NovaCare Complex in South Philadelphia, held in conjunction with the Eagles Autism Challenge initiative.
In North Philadelphia, Historic Strawberry Mansion has also hosted two concerts to date. The largest of the seven historic houses in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, the mansion was built in 1789 by lawyer and abolitionist Judge William Lewis. In 1930, it was restored and opened to the public by the Committee of 1926, a women’s group still actively involved in its preservation.
Members of the Orchestra’s wind quintet pose with the Committee of 1926 at Strawberry Mansion in 2018. Photo by Pete Checchia
In May 2018, the Orchestra and the Committee of 1926 joined forces to present a Free Neighborhood Chamber Concert in the mansion’s backyard. After the concert, Albaugh met Kevin Upshur, founder and director of the Strawberry Mansion Learning Center (SMLC). According to its website, SMLC strives “to provide a safe place for students to learn and grow,” offering support, mentorship, and an after-school haven for area youth since 2008.
“A lot of the kids don’t get a chance to get out of the neighborhood to get to a place like the Kimmel Center or the Academy of Music,” Upshur said. Hearing and meeting Philadelphia Orchestra musicians at the neighborhood concert “helped the kids get a good understanding about the great work they do and the hard work they put into it.”
The experience also resonated beyond the music, Upshur added. “The beauty is you see people from all walks of life. You talk to people you wouldn’t normally get to talk to. This event is actually bringing communities together.”
Albaugh and Upshur seized the opportunity to collaborate, and the partnership has blossomed in organic and unexpected ways. For instance, thanks to some extra available funding, the Orchestra was able to donate instruments to SMLC—such as djembe drums—as well as a new PA system.
In just a few short years, the Free Neighborhood Chamber Concerts have sparked these kinds of fruitful exchanges between the Orchestra and community organizations like SMLC. And Albaugh is quick to recognize the Orchestra’s musicians for their crucial participation. “The support from the musicians has been overwhelming. Their schedules are busy, and they still want to find the time to support,” he said.
David Nicastro, violist for The Philadelphia Orchestra since 1995, helped spearhead the Free Neighborhood Chamber Concert at St. Thomas Aquinas School in his neighborhood of South Philadelphia. Through his community connections, the event last February featured a vibrant mix of music, food, art, and culture.
Violist David Nicastro introduces one of the works his string quartet will perform at the St. Thomas Aquinas Neighborhood Chamber Concert in 2019. Photo by Pete Checchia
“I feel very lucky to be friends with David Suro, who owns a restaurant here in Philadelphia called Tequilas. He’s really invested in preserving the culture of Mexico,” Nicastro said. Through his friendship with Suro, Nicastro connected with Philadelphia nonprofit organization Puentes de Salud (Bridges of Health) and its Art & Culture Director Nora Litz. Together with Albaugh, they envisioned a collaborative community event that embraced the neighborhood’s diverse immigrant communities.
“David (Suro) provided catered food from Tequilas, and there were hands-on activities before the concert for the kids,” Nicastro recalled. Litz facilitated an art exhibit that illuminated the journeys of young people immigrating to America.
For the chamber concert, Nicastro was joined by Philadelphia Orchestra violinists Yayoi Numazawa and Daniel Han, along with cellist Jesús Morales. They performed string quartet selections by Haydn, Dvořák, and Mendelssohn, as well as “Lan Hua Hua” by composer Zhou Long (from Chinese Folk Songs), and “Rhumba” and “Serenata” by Michael McLean (from Six Dances for String Quartet).
According to Albaugh, “We work with our partners to perform music that they want to hear. We try to tailor it to the neighborhoods, as well.” Depending on the setting, the concerts might feature a string quartet, woodwind quartet, or brass and percussion groups.
One of the pre-concert activities at the Free Neighborhood Chamber Concerts is an instrument petting zoo, this one at St. Francis de Sales in 2019. Photo by Pete Checchia
To collaborate like this is a beautiful thing,” said Nicastro, reflecting on his experience participating in the Free Neighborhood Chamber Concert Series. “There was a palpable warmth. A lot of people lingered after we were finished playing, then came up and wanted to talk and thank us for being there. There were some families there with young kids, and they brought them up to introduce themselves.”
He pointed to the broad cross-section of nationalities represented by Orchestra members, and noted that his colleagues understand the importance of being part of Philadelphia and its tapestry of communities. “We truly want everyone in the city to feel that we are Your Philadelphia Orchestra. So we are really reaching out in so many different ways,” Nicastro said emphatically.
This season, the Orchestra has already produced two Free Neighborhood Chamber Concerts, at Cannstatter Volkfest-Verein and the NovaCare Complex. The remaining concerts will take place at Germantown Friends School’s Loeb Theater on April 19; NextFab’s new North Philadelphia location on May 10; East Passyunk Avenue’s famed Singing Fountain on June 28; and the Philadelphia Zoo on July 26. For more information, please visit www.philorch.org.
Karen Gross is a writer, musician, and proud Philadelphia native.