Hidden from small

Beyond the Stage: A Look at the Orchestra’s New HEAR Initiative

November 01, 2016

If you’re reading this in Verizon Hall, you’re eagerly looking forward to the glorious sound, the passion, and the excellent musicianship for which The Philadelphia Orchestra is justly famous. But in the excitement surrounding a new season (featuring everything from a three-week Paris Festival to a new Organ Concerto by Christopher Rouse, to stars from Yefim Bronfman to Itzhak Perlman to Midori, all part of Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s fifth season), Orchestra President and Chief Executive Officer Allison Vulgamore wants to make sure you’re just as passionate about the impact the Orchestra is having well away from the concert hall, moving out of the auditorium and affecting the entire community of Philadelphia.

Vulgamore stresses that the Orchestra’s renowned art is also what she calls “social-compact directed. Philadelphia is our home. The Orchestra lives in service to its many communities: We perform music, we encourage music-making, and we want to improve the quality of life for the city.”

Thus, last spring, the Orchestra launched a major campaign under its Collaborative Learning umbrella. It grew out of an extensive, yearlong evaluation process made possible by the William Penn Foundation. This included interviews with over 100 constituents, surveys returned by over 700 program participants, evaluation of past data, and in-depth conversations with many of the Orchestra’s existing and potential partners.

The series of programs is called HEAR (for Health, Education, Access, and Research) and it’s designed to connect musicians and music with neighbors and neighborhoods. Through a portfolio of initiatives, HEAR is promoting wellness, championing music education, eliminating barriers to accessing the Orchestra, and maximizing its impact through research, all throughout the Philadelphia region.

More specifically:

Health looks at how the Orchestra can use music for well-being, working within those communities that might be experiencing trauma or homelessness. The first project is a partnership with Broad Street Ministry, an organization that provides meals, mail, and other social services. Orchestra musicians are working with Temple University’s Music Therapy Department to create a weekly songwriting improvisation and listening class for Broad Street Ministry guests.

One such guest is thrilled with the program. “When you sit behind an instrument, it’s like you can be a different person. You can express yourself in a way that you might normally not.”

Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Mei Ching Huang (far left) and Orchestra violinist Philip Kates (far right) work with facilitators and guests at a Broad Street Ministry session. Photo by Jessica Griffin

Education focuses on how to give youth a voice through music and how to champion music education and expand it throughout the city. Under this heading, the Orchestra has expanded its relationship with the School District’s All-City Orchestra, by offering private lessons to the top 10 students in the All-City Orchestra, presenting the organization again in Verizon Hall for its annual concert, and having Philadelphia Orchestra musicians lead sectional rehearsals.

As one All-City cellist remarked, “It felt so nice to be on stage and to look up to see the musician’s faces. It reminded me of the amazing community that I am part of, and I am so grateful to have these kinds of opportunities.”

There’s also a new buy-one, give-one instrument program in collaboration with the Eastman Music Company, featuring a brand-new instrument line called La Scala (Italian for “ladder”); the name suggests that as musicians climb up the ladder of opportunity, they reach back and bring someone else along. For every La Scala instrument purchased in this program, another one goes to a student in the Philadelphia Public Schools. To date approximately 50 instruments have been purchased, which means new instruments are now in the hands of local students.

Assistant Principal Bass Joseph Conyers tours the Eastman Music Company Workshop in Beijing during the Orchestra’s 2016 Tour of Asia. Joe was one of the musicians who helped design the new line of instruments specifically for the “buy one, give one” program. Photo byJan Regan

Access “is about eliminating as many obstacles or barriers between people having a chance to love the music that we can provide, and be touched by it,” says Vulgamore. It aims to increase community participation on and off the stage, and make sure the Orchestra is available across Philadelphia’s many communities. Recent highlights include Free Neighborhood Chamber Concerts in Schmidt’s Commons in Northern Liberties and in Chestnut Hill’s Pastorious Park, and a full Orchestra Free Neighborhood Concert at Penn’s Landing as part of Wawa Welcome America’s Fourth of July festivities. They’re all steps in creating a presence in all the different neighborhoods of Philadelphia.

This part of the initiative also involves making the Orchestra’s musicians more accessible, through PlayINs that allow groups of violinists or cellists, for example, to come play with their professional counterparts. (Vulgamore likes to call the PlayINs “classical jam sessions”; she praises the Orchestra musicians for rolling up their sleeves in these and other initiatives.)

Free PopUP concerts are another important part of the mix, using social media to promote previously unannounced events where, in Vulgamore’s words, “we can enjoy classical music together.

Of course, The Philadelphia Orchestra is also continuing all its legacy programs, including Family Concerts; Sound All Around (for children ages 3-5, and now including relaxed sensory friendly performances); the highly regarded School Concerts; Side-by-Side rehearsals and concerts; and the Albert M. Greenfield Student Competition, which has been helping talented young musicians develop their skills for decades. Tens of thousands of children and families have had their lives enhanced through these beloved programs.

Concertgoers read through the Eighth Note program at a recent Family Concert. Photo byJessica Griffin

According to Vulgamore, “The big piece in HEAR is the R for Research. We can say we want to make a social impact in Philadelphia. But unless we can show we are affecting and bettering someone’s existence, then investors in our concept will question if we’re having an impact. So research is a very important next step for us.”

Thus, Research means making sure the HEAR initiatives are having the maximum possible impact on social welfare, and driving the social-compact conversation forward, not only locally but throughout the world. For example under Health, the Orchestra is working with Temple University to learn how the music program affects coping, quality of life, and hopelessness for those experiencing trauma. Under Education, Penn’s Graduate School of Education is mapping the collective knowledge and resources in the city’s arts/education ecosystem, to determine how best to distribute Orchestra arts resources to public school students, to make sure they’re getting the highest quality experience they can from all the cultural organizations in the city. 

Under Access, the Orchestra hopes to learn, for example, how someone who comes to a Neighborhood Concert or PlayIN can be made aware of other opportunities to access the Orchestra.

Yannick conducts the All-City Orchestra in the All-City High School Music Festival in March 2016. Photo by Jessica Griffin

Vulgamore is very clear that HEAR leverages Philadelphia’s unique strengths. “It’s a very engagement-intensive initiative. And it requires collaboration with, and learning from, experts outside ourselves, such as the Temple Music Therapy Department, the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and Broad Street Ministry.”

Needless to say, the commitment of the incredible Philadelphia Orchestra musicians is the essential keystroke of the HEAR initiative. That La Scala instrument program? Several musicians worked directly with Eastman to develop the new instruments. They pioneered the popular PlayINs. Many of them are proud graduates of the All-City Orchestra program, and are dedicated to ensuring that it continues to thrive. The NYO2 partnership with Carnegie Hall, dedicated to excellent, talented young musicians, especially those underserved by the classical field, relies on the generous tutoring and mentorship by Orchestra members.

A striking example of how the Orchestra musicians give back is the recent self-organized Second Annual Audience Appreciation Concerts. On October 4, our musicians fanned out across Philadelphia and the surrounding area, delighting audiences with 14 separate concerts, from string quartets to piano trios, to a horn and percussion ensemble.

And of course, members of the ensemble devote countless hours outside of “official” Orchestra business to bettering those in their community, through teaching and otherwise giving of their time and talents.

Orchestra violist Judy Geist and the composer Hannibal perform for inmates at the Philadelphia Prison System Detention Center as part of the community activities surrounding the world premiere of Hannibal’s One Land, One River, One People in November 2015. Photo by Jessica Griffin

Vulgamore is ready with an answer to the devil’s advocate question: This is all very nice, but what does it have to do with getting paying customers into Verizon Hall?

“Being an excellent performing artist or institution today is very different from 50 to 100, even 10 years ago. Yannick has described The Philadelphia Orchestra as a great, phenomenal tree: It has a tremendous trunk, with lots of branches at the top, consisting of wonderful music in a host of varied performances and genres for different audiences: classical, holiday, new music, opera, staged passions; all the things we can do. But the trunk has to have roots for the tree to survive. The roots have to go deep into the ground, to support all of that excellence of performance. The components of the HEAR initiative are the roots of this great performance organization. Any institution or artist that does not understand this will topple from the wind.

“We have a socially minded institution,” Vulgamore continues. “When we did Bernstein’s MASS we hosted diversity and faith-based conversations. When we did Hannibal’s One Land, One River, One People last year we worked inside the Philadelphia Detention Center, at the Free Library, and all around the community. Next year we’ll have a new premiere by Tod Machover that similarly will move out widely into the community. This Orchestra was first in television, radio, film; it’s Fantasia’s Orchestra. We have always experimented with what it is to be with our community.”

To help support the growth and development of the HEAR Initiative, the Orchestra will soon be forming a new Collaborative Learning Council, inviting community leaders, philanthropists, and education advocates to join together to help shape and advance these important new programs serving our community. For those who are interested in learning more or participating in the Council, please contact Vice President of Development Brad Voigt at bvoigt@philorch.org.

Steve Holt, managing partner at re:Write, is a veteran journalist and musician.