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Rehearsing Philadelphia: Bringing the City Together through Musical Rehearsal

By Laurel Hostak Jones

The Philadelphia Public Orchestra performs at Cherry Street Pier

May 16, 2022

In spring 2022, Drexel’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design and Curtis Institute of Music presented Rehearsing Philadelphia: A Meta-Score by Ari Benjamin Meyers through a series of events across the city. Rehearsing Philadelphia was initially conceived near start of the pandemic, and the project’s driving questions – centered around justice, virtuosity, access, memory, and togetherness – were shaped and reshaped by COVID’s impact. Taking place across the city, Rehearsing Philadelphia became a poignant analogy for the ways in which people would come back together, as pairings, small groups, and large collectives.

When constructing the project’s goals, co-presenters Miriam Giguere, PhD, Department Head of Performing Arts in Drexel Westphal, and Mary Javian, Chair of Career Studies at the Curtis Institute of Music, sought to elevate the cultural and sonic diversity of Philadelphia. They were interested in challenging western concepts of what an orchestra looks and sounds like, reframing how we think about institutions, hierarchies, and monuments, and redefining the position of music as socially engaged public art.

For Giguere, facilitating community and artist partnerships is an imperative of Drexel’s institutional position and direct mission around civic engagement. “Through these city-wide projects, we can provide access to the performing arts and elevate local voices. That’s part of our civic responsibility as a university,” Giguere says.

Giguere and Javian approached the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage (PCAH) for funding, and the proposal became the first inter-institutional project grant ever funded by the organization. At the time of the award in 2019, it was the largest project grant in PCAH history; the Curtis Institute received $300,000 in funding, and Drexel Westphal received $400,000 for the collaboration. They engaged Berlin-based composer and conceptual artist Ari Benjamin Meyers, who drew from previous projects, such as Moscow Solos (2019) and Staatsorchester (2018), and conceived a new staging of his work Duet (2014). It was Meyers who framed the project with the question “How can we be together?”—a question undeniably resonant in COVID times, but also one that addresses the social reckonings of recent years and those that persist in the realm of classical music.

Each of the four modules of Rehearsing PhiladelphiaSolo, Duet, Ensemble, and Orchestra—involved a live, in-person audience encounter, engaging local and international artists, institutional partners, and everyday Philadelphians. Taking place in the spring of 2022, just as cities and businesses loosened COVID restrictions and mask mandates, and as life for many began to look something like it did before the pandemic, the events became a kind of testing ground for communities coming back together.

Places of Power

The module Solo sought to explore the individual’s sense of isolation and powerlessness in the face of various underlying power structures in our society that visibly or invisibly determine our daily lives. Five commissioned artists created solos to be performed in “places of power” in Philadelphia: the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) Headquarters, the Philadelphia School District, Penn Medicine, Community Legal Services, and City Hall. Each solo was performed by an employee of the location. At Community Legal Services, retired lawyer Jonathan Stein performed interpretive dance to spoken text crafted from his old cases. Philadelphia Police officer Stephanie Velazquez sang a love song—in both Korean and English—about her friendship with Korean-American anchor Siani Lee, whom she met as part of her work to strengthen relationships between the PPD and the Korean-American community. Audiences for Solo were intentionally kept small, creating intimate glimpses at the inner worlds of Philadelphians and their relationships to their work.

Would you like to sing with me?

In Duet, trained performers engaged passersby with the simple question “Would you like to sing with me?” If the answer was yes, a short public rehearsal and performance ensued; if no, the passerby moved on. Facilitated by the Philadelphia Heritage Chorale, Singing City, and the Curtis Opera Theatre, singers were stationed at monuments and locations of collective memory throughout Philadelphia: In Clark Park for the Baltimore Avenue Corridor, in Independence Historical Park for the Old City Corridor and Love Park for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway Corridor. The module explored a return to small-scale social engagement and the possibility of inscribing personal experience into the narration of history and the cityscape.

The freedom to be bold, rather than perfect

Through the module Ensemble—imitating family units or quarantine pods—the project directly involved students from both Drexel and Curtis. Over the 2021-22 academic year, 40 students participated in an inter-institutional course, which met on Drexel’s campus during the fall and at Curtis in the spring. Co-taught by Javian and Drexel music instructor Chris Farrell, the course was listed as Experimental Ensemble in Drexel’s Catalog and as Social Entrepreneur in Curtis’s. Social Entrepreneur is a required course for Curtis’s Bachelor of Music students; typically, it brings students into community settings like populations experiencing homelessness, schools, healthcare settings, and prisons to explore applications of music in society. In the context of Rehearsing Philadelphia, the course challenged students to explore the project’s questions around togetherness, justice, and access while also questioning and deconstructing the traditional music ensemble. The class of 40 students was divided into four 10-person ensembles, who worked together over the course of the year toward a series of durational performances.

“Any collaboration teaches the people involved how to work together,” Javian says, reflecting on the rare opportunity to offer cross-institutional curriculum. Where Curtis students receive a music conservatory education, Drexel’s Music program offers elective courses and extracurricular ensembles rather than a degree program. Students involved in the Performing Arts at Drexel come from academic programs across the University; the Experimental Ensemble course saw participation from computer engineers, MBAs, Music Industry students, English majors, and more. This variation in the students’ musical background created challenges and opportunities for this unconventional ensemble. Classically trained chamber musicians from Curtis sat side-by-side with music technologists and composers. Harpists played alongside electric guitarists. Some Drexel musicians had little to no music reading experience, but they brought rock backgrounds and uninhibited enthusiasm for music improvisation—a new practice for their classmates from Curtis. Voice students from Curtis, whose education is largely opera-focused, were challenged to blend their voices with an ensemble, rather than stand out as soloists.

The repertoire, then, was an important equalizing factor, and guest artists were commissioned to create one-of-a-kind compositions unlike anything either student body had played before. Award-winning cellist and composer Zoë Keating (Rasputina, Amanda Palmer, HBO’s Oslo) joined the class to compose and conduct the world premiere of Constructive Assembly. Through Rehearsing Philadelphia’s Radio feature, you can hear Keating describe the process of building the composition with the ensemble. “It doesn’t really matter exactly what phrase you’re playing, as long as you play it with conviction, and as long as you all start together and end together,” she says, emphasizing the playful, improvisatory nature of rehearsal; the musicians learn to listen to each other, respond to what’s happening in the room, and discover the music together.

Composer and multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey joined the student ensembles to create a version of his Autoschediasms, using a language of hand symbols and principles of traditional conduction to inspire spontaneous music creation. The process is similar to, but distinct from, music improvisation; the music is rather composed in real time, blurring the line between composition and improv. Two students in Sorey’s workshops adopted the series of hand symbols to conduct their classmates; the ensemble now had a shared language.

Farrell recalls one evening, during Sorey’s visit, when after a dinner break, all the musicians went back into the classroom and spontaneously started playing together. Some students danced, the classmates bonded, and there was a palpable air of joy and community that arose out of the experience. “They were jumping headfirst into the notion of music as play,” says Farrell.

In April, the four student ensembles presented six durational performances – each lasting up to six hours – in Drexel’s Leonard Pearlstein Gallery. Audiences were encouraged to come and go as they pleased, enjoying the music against the non-traditional backdrop of an art exhibition (in this case, the Pearlstein’s exhibition Lastgaspism: Art and Survival in the Age of Pandemic). Fans of Zoë Keating took a bus down from New York City to see her conduct an ensemble; Keating gave them the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate in the performance by playing along on an experimental harmonic instrument called the whirly tube. The wall between audience and performer came down as all participants embraced the imperfections and continual growth of “rehearsing.”

“There was a playful atmosphere in our performances; the audience was always ‘in on it,’” says Grace Fisher, a Drexel double-major in Dance and English, and a member of the Drexel Dance Ensemble. “For me this gave us the freedom to be bold, rather than perfect, which is too often the quality aspired to in art.”

Beyond traditional hierarchies in music

The final module of the project, Orchestra, sought to reimagine the traditionally hierarchical orchestra into a collective that represents the sonic diversity of Philadelphia. Giguere notes that there are many ways to recognize diversity in such an endeavor; in a city like Philadelphia (sometimes called “The City of Neighborhoods), zip code is an important dimension in evaluating the diversity of a collective, in addition to race, gender, socioeconomic status, age, ability, and others. “We decided on representing as many neighborhoods in Philadelphia as we possibly could,” she says. “We wanted to make sure [the orchestra] represented the musical traditions of Philadelphia, even if they were never represented in an orchestra before.” The Philadelphia Public Orchestra was born, comprised of 50 local musicians representing instrumentation and musical practices from bandoneon to the oud, from DJing to French horn, from electric guitar to Korean percussion.

Just as in Ensemble, the diversity of instrumentation necessitated a rethinking of repertoire. A range of composers were commissioned – and here, the project presenters define “composer” as “someone who creates using time-based art”—to generate new music for the Public Orchestra. These included poet, songwriter, and activist Ursula Rucker, interdisciplinary artist and performer Ann Carlson, pioneering afrofuturist Jazz collective The Sun Ra Arkestra, and award-winning cross-genre protest artist Xenia Rubinos. Bassist and producer Anthony Tidd served as musical director and led the Orchestra alongside Meyers; all rehearsals were open, and served also as forums for conversation, discussion, and exchange.

The Public Orchestra, whose manifesto can be read here, held a series of open rehearsals at Cherry Street Pier as the final events of Rehearsing Philadelphia in April. By calling them “open rehearsals” rather than performances, the Orchestra was free from the expectation of perfection or strict formality. Composers attended, and even conducted, their own material. The repertoire could change depending on the night. In this open, public space – so antithetical to the traditional orchestra setting of a concert hall or amphitheater – the conventional musical hierarchies and the line between audience and performer fell away.

“We are offering opportunities for audiences to experience performance in different ways,” Giguere says. This is true for the audience members who walked their dogs played with their kids at Cherry Street Pier during Orchestra, folks for whom Ensemble was a soundtrack to a contemporary art exhibition, passersby who sang a Duet with a stranger in Clark Park, and the small audiences offered a window into Philly’s places of power through Solo.

Rehearsing Philadelphia affirms that “the future will be rehearsed, not perfected.” As such, the culminating events of spring 2022 were far from a final curtain. Valuable friendships and artistic collaborations were forged across disciplines, neighborhoods, and identity groups. Members of the Public Orchestra started an online community to stay in touch, and many have sat in on each other’s rehearsals, or hired each other for gigs. A similar pattern emerged with the students and faculty involved with Ensemble; the Curtis and Drexel project participants have shown up at each other’s concerts. In this way, Rehearsing Philadelphia appears to have achieved its ambitious goal of bringing the city together through musical rehearsal.

“It’s exactly what we want to happen in terms of societal or intercultural dialogue,” says Javian, reflecting on the musical and personal relationships formed over the course of the project. “It’s a conversation with someone who’s different from you.”


Major support for Rehearsing Philadelphia has been provided by a grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.