How Artists Work With People, Not For People

By Jonathan Eifert

The organ is, by its large nature, an instrument of the community.

Led by Partners for Sacred Places, a new initiative titled PLAYING AND PRESERVING: Saving and Activating Philadelphia’s Historic Pipe Organs In Advancement of Music and Community aims to generate public support for the preservation and active use of Philadelphia’s organ heritage by building relationships between congregations, artists, organ builders, and the broader public. This exciting venture is also in collaboration with a team of interdisciplinary partners, including Astral Artists, the Curtis Institute of Music, and Bowerbird.

Reflecting the project’s core values of collaboration and partnership through music, Astral is joining with Play On, Philly! (POP) to create free community concerts featuring musicians of various ages performing with the pipe organ. These three community concerts will be held Friday, October 25; Friday, November 22; and Saturday, December 21 at St. Mary’s, Hamilton Village in Philadelphia.

The first concert features Project Fusion, saxophone quartet, Michael Lawrence, organ, and the POP Wind Ensemble; the second features Thomas Mesa, cello, Greg Zelek, organ and the POP Cello Ensemble; and the third features Chrystal E. Williams, mezzo-soprano, Thomas Mesa, cello, Greg Zelek, organ and the full POP Symphony Orchestra.

“Experience Stations” Immerse Community

To invite the community into the events, there will be Experience Stations beginning 30 minutes prior to each concert. Child-friendly and designed for audience members new to the organ, the Experience Stations focus on qualities unique to the instrument, to build a curiosity about the organ and its musical voice prior to each concert.

POP Music Director Andrés González calls them “mini-classrooms” and hopes the community gains more understanding of the concert prior to listening to the students and artists perform.

“When our students have the opportunity to play in a community where they live and go to school, they’re able to show what they’re learning to people around them, extended past their families, which helps to build pride among their community and within themselves,” POP Development Director Beth Young said. “It really builds a lot of excitement and pride for the community members to see that the children from their neighborhood — friends and neighbors that they see on a regular basis — have been working toward something really amazing. They can bring that back and share it with everyone.”

Stefanie Wakeman, Astral Artists Program & Community Partnerships Manager, reiterated the opportunity through Playing & Preserving to bring together community collaboration with really exceptional artistic collaboration. This once-in-a-lifetime project brings interesting artistic questions to be explored to the forefront.

“Often in classical music, we have a wonderful tradition and respect for the past,” Wakeman said. “It is also equally important to balance that with a healthy curiosity of how to bring the heart and the living piece of that into the present, in order to honor the past and bring it into the future through a seamless connection.”

A number of artists are accomplishing this by creating new arrangements specifically for this program, to facilitate the community interaction in this unique partnership.

“There is so much musicians want to do to engage the audience and what is going on in the world at-large, but the difficulty lies in creating works about the topic rather than ones that shift the viewpoint and transform thinking and behaviors,” said composer and Astral Artistic Director Dan Visconti.

For this project, it has been really important to not only create works that are topical about the organ, but something that invites people in to ask some questions.

“That’s been really helpful because that’s a way to take music that might have had one meaning or context and allowing it to have relevance in different ways, and to connect the Astral and POP musicians, sometimes in very interesting kind of roles,” Visconti said.

Students Perform Complex Classical Works

In the weeks before these concert experiences, Astral artists will mentor the POP students through a Residency program, building musical skills and relationships between young musicians actively studying and world-class musicians who perform across the globe.

“The repertoire for these performances are high level, which is an excellent opportunity for the children to experience and be immersed in this caliber of performance,” González said. “An aria from Bizet’s Carmen will be performed at a community concert, among other complex works. It will be a good challenge for the students.”

“When we think about Astral’s role, it is really to be an early incubator for classical musicians,” Wakeman said. “We’re really looking for ways to support and create and encourage opportunities for the artists that we’re so fortunate to work with, who are talented and still interested in being part of the world in an influential way as both an artist and as a person.”

Philadelphians Find Increased Interest in Music Education

At POP, there has been an increased interest in music education programs, fueling their higher commitment to the students every day after school, something some other organizations and programs in the area are unable to offer.

“We have lost many programs in the Philadelphia area over a long period of time, but there is a growing movement focused on bringing music back, and it’s championed by organizations like Play On, Philly!, Astral, and our partners. It’s incredibly meaningful for us to collaborate on something like the Playing and Preserving project with Partners for Sacred Places. It provides new opportunities for our students and helps raise the visibility of our programming, showing that immersive music education is successful and that all children deserve access to it,” Young said.

Visconti believes that music education traditionally has not been valued as much as it should be, with a stigma of being pulled in different directions based on if you are a great performer or if you’re someone who is a wonderful teacher. “With partnerships such as the one between Astral and POP, supported by Partners for Sacred Places, it is cultivating a generation of artists who are responsive and balanced, seeing their talent as a skill. Whether you’re designing a recital in the community, figuring out how to engage audiences from the stage, or working within music education, it all matters,” Visconti said.

Artists Work with People, Not for People

Classical music is a fantastic living art form that we sometimes have a narrow door or point of entry. This particular project is embracing artists at any experience and age, and “sparking some fires,” Wakeman said.

“Any kind of project like this, that allows us to open more doors, is really exciting,” she added. “It is really not our artists going in and doing something for people, but our artists going in and doing something with people.”

To learn more about this groundbreaking initiative and be notified about upcoming events, visit