Peter A. Benoliel is a distinguished civic and business leader, and a passionate supporter of music in Philadelphia. In addition to a 40-year career with Conshohocken-based Quaker Chemical, 26 of them as CEO, he’s been a director of numerous leading companies, and a director and chairman of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve. He’s an emeritus trustee of the Curtis Institute of Music, and chairman emeritus of the Settlement Music School. Most importantly, he’s the former chairman of the Board of The Philadelphia Orchestra Association. And he’s just endowed his second chair for an Orchestra musician.
Peter grew up loving classical music. “I don’t remember a time when I didn’t!” He was about seven years old when he went to his first Philadelphia Orchestra concert: Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Afterward, Leopold Stokowski invited all the boys in th audience named Peter to come up on stage. Thanks to his parents’ close ties to the Orchestra, Peter knew a number of the musicians and decided to wade in among the players and shake a few hands. Stokowski harrumphed that he needed to get back to his seat, but Peter insisting on greeting his friends. Later, one of the musicians pointed out that Peter was the only person who ever talked back to Stokowski … and got away with it.
Not long after that encounter with the Fabulous Philadelphians, Peter began taking violin lessons with Joseph Brodo, a member of the Orchestra. “Age eight was a little old to start the violin, but I was serious about it and did very well in the beginning. Then from about age 11 I was nudged gently into athletics [he became a tennis and squash standout in college], and they absorbed much of my energy. I didn’t practice as much, but I kept my hand in. I played in the orchestra at Princeton University, but once I graduated, I put my violin in a box, and didn’t play it for almost 15 years.”
A chance involvement with the Young Audiences Group led him to dust off the fiddle, and before long he was playing with a string quartet eight to 10 times a year. Then, with business travel taking up a lot of his time, he came across Associated Chamber Music Players, a group that matches musicians of all levels. “As a result, I played chamber music all over the world: Europe, South America, Australia, and Japan. I made a lot of friends there; they even made me an honorary member of the Japanese Chamber Music Association.” Since retirement, he’s been able to devote more and more time to the instrument: “In the last 10 years, I have the violin under my chin almost every day.”
How did he get to be chairman of the Orchestra Board? “It was a natural progression. I grew up with the Orchestra, since the 1930s. From around age 10 or 11 I’d go by myself, taking the trolley from Mt. Airy and sitting up in the Amphitheatre for 65¢! I’ve probably met half the players through the years. My mother was chairwoman of the West Philadelphia Women’s [now Volunteer] Committee. I started getting directly involved with the Orchestra when I started my business career in the ’60s. I was on the Board much of the time from the 1980s on, and served as chairman in the late ’90s.”
Peter has recently endowed his second chair for an Orchestra musician: the Joseph Brodo Chair, currently held by second violinist Booker Rowe. (Peter met Rowe many years ago through the Settlement Music School.) His first endowment was the Peter A. Benoliel Chair for principal second violin, currently held by Kimberly Fisher.
Why endow two chairs for violin? “I still am a violin player,” he says, chuckling, “but obviously, I wouldn’t be able to endow them if I’d tried to make a career as a professional musician!”
On a more serious note, Peter explains why he feels contributing to the Orchestra in this way is so important. “The big thing is, to ensure the sustainability and future of the Orchestra. It can’t make it on ticket sales alone, so the more endowments, either of musician chairs or otherwise, the better.”
In addition to serving on the Board, and endowing the two Orchestra chairs, Peter and his sister gave to the Kimmel Center, in honor of their late parents. The music director’s studio is named in honor of his late wife. This generosity runs in the family: Peter’s mother gave to support the Orchestra’s music library.
Finally, what does music mean to Peter Benoliel? “The secret of living is to be engaged. Music is a passion for me, just a passion. My wife and I average two concerts a week: opera, chamber music, and of course The Philadelphia Orchestra. I average playing a gig a week, plus practicing. Music is pretty central to my life. It’s my life blood, my spiritual life. Without it I’d be only half alive, if that!”