A small group of musicians from The Philadelphia Orchestra are organizing a chamber music concert to benefit local Syrian refugees on May 7th at 6 pm at the Philadelphia Ethical Society on Rittenhouse Square.
Proceeds from the concert will support the efforts of HIAS Pennsylvania, the refugee and immigrant aid society that provides support services for the Philadelphia community of Syrian refugees. Founded in 1882 to assist Jewish immigrants, HIAS now works to assist immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from all backgrounds, and sees newcomers as an asset to the community. Tickets and information here.
The chamber musicians performing in the concert include the Orchestra's principal horn, Jennifer Montone and violinist Philip Kates, who talked with WRTI's Susan Lewis about why and how they've become involved in this effort.
Also performing are associate concertmaster Ying Fu, violinist Jason Depue, cellist John Koen, and English horn Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia.
The May 7th concert includes works by Haydn, Schubert, Mozart and a new work by Philip Kates being composed for the occasion.
Haydn, Divertimento a Tre (horn, violin, cello)
Schubert, Quartetsatz (string quartet)
Kates, Longing (premiere for horn, English horn, string quartet)
Mozart, Horn Quintet in E Flat Major (horn, string quartet)
Susan Lewis: Phil, how did this come about?
Philip Kates: Well probably 6 or 8 months ago, Jen came to me and said we should do something to help the local community of refugees that are coming in. There were quite a few in 2017; I don’t know that there’ve been many this year, but the families are still getting settled. These are people who've been invited to come over here. They have legal status. And they’ve left places where it’s been very uncomfortable - that’s probably putting it mildly. Uncomfortable for them to live and even dangerous. So we wanted to welcome them here and make them feel they are part of our community.
SL: Jennifer, what got you involved?
Jennifer Montone: I think the musical community in Philadelphia has a lot of these beautiful, spirited concerts. I had noticed a few of them going on. A couple of our colleagues had done some. Some other organizations do this regularly. It's an extension of what is already happening. It seems like a good time given how crazy everything is going; for all of us to join together and create as much - like Phil said - as much welcome to our community and a welcoming vibe. Anything we can all do is good.
SL: When you say that a lot is going on, these are all groups that help foster cross cultural understanding.
PK: Right. Well Udi [Bar David] has been doing this for years with Intercultural Journeys. Not just in Philadelphia, but all around the world. When the orchestra travels to China, he puts together these programs, and not just with musicians from his part of the world. He’s Israeli.
SL: So you guys thought there was a need, wanted to get involved, and then what happened? How did you get connected with HIAS?
JM: Well, Phil and I, as he said, have been talking about this concept for awhile—basically having there be more Orchestra musicians involved in community events. It's a direction the whole orchestra is going in as well. It's a direction the whole city is going in.
I think we just wanted to get it going in a chamber music fashion because that’s an easy way to organize —in small groups. Then we started doing some research as to the community organizations.
There was an art museum exhibition called Philadelphia Assembled, which had a sanctuary part. And that is something I’ve been researching - Philadelphia as a sanctuary city and all of the organizations that provide sanctuary in lots of different ways.
HIAS is one of them, and is very targeted towards the Syrian community, new immigrants coming from there. That seemed like a beautiful fit. They’re doing lovely things there. Hopefully we’ll get to do more of these and in other directions.
PK: I think the sanctuary idea is important, not in a political way, because the last thing we want to do is politicize something like this. The point of this is to be welcoming.
I remember thinking about it when Jen and I had firmed up the date. During the Passover ceremony, we talk about..."Remember that once you were a stranger in a strange land."
We all know what it’s like to not fit in sometimes and how it’s uncomfortable. This kind of being a stranger and not fitting in is on quite a different level than I think most of us can appreciate, and I think it’s important for us to put ourselves in that place.
JM: To the nonpolitical thing, I think it's the power of music that can be something completely separate; where people are putting love out there, and putting music out there. All of us enjoying something that’s common.
SL: So you put a concert together. How did you pick the program?
PK: I think we wanted to play to our strengths, but also to pick composers that audiences would feel most comfortable with. Of course our audiences are eclectic as well. So when we say, Haydn, Mozart and Schubert, we’re not challenging people’s listening in those ways. Although the Schubert we’ve chosen has quite a bit of turmoil in it - the single movement piece known as Quartetsatz.
There’s another piece scheduled to be on the program. Jen had asked me to consider arranging a Syrian folk melody of some kind. I had done something in Mongolia and I guess that’s why Jen - you thought I could do this.
JM: Exactly! [LAUGHTER].
PK: And somehow I thought i wouldn’t be able to capture the style well enough. And maybe not just me; our instrumentalists are trained mostly in a classical vein.
I think at some point it’d be wonderful to collaborate as Udi [Bar David] has been doing with Palestinian musicians, to start to absorb some of those styles. But I thought if we did that in this concert, we might not be as convincing as if we did repertoire that was really in our blood.
SL: What did you do in Mongolia?
PK: Ah, it was ... I can’t recall what the piece of music was.
JM: But it was a Mongolian song and you arranged it for a chamber orchestra.
PK: Right. But I decided not to do that for this. But to write something for the musicians we have, the six players, with the kind of flavor of the Middle East. It doesn’t go overboard at all because I don't want it to seem contrived. But I think the feeling will show a little bit of that part of the world.
SL: Can you describe it at all?
PK: Well, I’ve titled it Longing, although I was wondering whether it should be plural.
The struggle that all of us have when we have any kind of even small problems. What we go through, the turmoil, sometimes resolutions. I can’t really describe it terribly well ...yet. It’s not terribly upbeat for most of it, but there is hope.
JM: The whole program as we envisioned it is sort of a combination of honoring some of the struggles and the sorrows that a lot of these people have endured, and also a very joyous and welcoming bench to it, as well. It’s a combination of that.
The Mozart and the Haydn are very joyous and very cheerful, very loving and buoyant pieces. The Schubert and Phil’s composition are much more introspective, and reflective and thought-provoking. The intention of the whole thing is to be both sensitive and caring and optimistic and hopeful and community gathering
SL: This concert is a benefit, and will raise money that HIAS will use in its efforts to help Syrian refugees. But what else does music do? What’s behind it, beyond raising money?
JM: Well, I think anytime musicians go into a setting that is less formal and is in the community, I think the purpose is to feed the soul and keep it as something that belongs to everyone, to have universal access to classical music, since we’re talking about classical music, to keep it as non-upper crust, and open to all. It's an art form which is very personal, like the personal emotions of the composer, the personal emotions of a performer and the personal emotions of an audience member—in any location and in any level of formality—those three coming together is the human strength of the art form as a whole. So it's a beautiful thing that everyone who's involved in it can enjoy and get something from it, and something that can feed the feeling of collectiveness and connectivity.
PK: We had in the Orchestra a few years back when Christoph Eschenbach was here, a slogan, a catch phrase: “Raise the invisible curtain.” I think when we go into the community in small ensembles, whether with the orchestra or on our own, it helps to accomplish this.
SL: It’s great and these pieces; people may think they know Haydn, Schubert, and Mozart, but the intimacy of this kind of a concert is a fresh, new experience for a lot of people.
JM: Its should be a fun evening and a fun event. And we're really excited about it.
PK: I would be surprised if more than five people—unless they’re horn players at this concert—have heard this Haydn trio before. [LAUGHTER]
I would also like to mention that at a time in the future, we would like to invite some of the local Syrian musicians who are here to join us. I have spoken with the director at Al Bustan, which is a community and cultural organization based in West Philly. They have some fine musicians there, and to have the opportunity to explore their way of thinking about music together would be very exciting. Something for us to look forward to in the fall.
JM: Perhaps this could be the first of many concerts.