Catch a multicultural holiday premiere from Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra

East Fairmount Park's Woodford Mansion will host Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra. (Photo courtesy of Fairmount Park Conservancy.)

The holidays usually bring warm thoughts about historic traditions. But it’s also worth remembering that a few centuries ago, Philadelphia may have been here, but “there was no American culture as we know it.”

That’s what composer and Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra (BPCO) founder and artistic director Jeri Lynne Johnson kept in mind when creating the musical performance Bricolage: Philadelphia 1756, coming to Fairmount Park’s historic Woodford Mansion on December 2. It’s part of the Fairmount Park Conservancy’s A Very Philly Christmas series.

Bricolage, a world-premiere chamber-orchestra piece, will be unlike anything Philly music fans have heard before, both in its sound and execution.

1756 Philadelphia (it’s complicated)

BPCO partnered with the conservancy last year, when it performed for the holiday season at Historic Strawberry Mansion. After being placed at Woodford this year, Johnson considered how her music could evoke what people heard back when the mansion was built in 1756.

The house’s history interested her. She notes that William Coleman (a close friend of Benjamin Franklin), a Philadelphia-born judge who built the house and owned it until his death in 1769, was a Quaker as well as a slaveowner. Coleman’s nephew, George Clymer, whom he raised as a son, was a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But the house’s subsequent owner, David Franks, a British loyalist who purchased the property in 1771, was arrested as a traitor by Benedict Arnold in 1778, under orders from Congress. Franks's family was expelled to England.

So the house has been full of contradictions since it was built, and Johnson appreciates the rich context of cultures that existed around it at the time. These include the roots of the African Methodist Episcopal church and the peculiar openness of Pennsylvania, which allowed Catholics, Methodists, and Lutherans to live side by side. With African-American slaves and free black people as well as native Lenni Lenape people calling the area home, Johnson found diverse musical inspirations in her quest to capture the sound of “a nation in its infancy.”

“I’m curating these different cultures in sound,” she says. That meant drawing from “Negro spirituals and church songs” (which have their own roots in enslaved people’s work songs), Native American flutes and drums, and European brass.

A living historical experience

BPCO’s string-quartet performance in Strawberry Mansion for last year’s holiday event was a big draw, but this year, organizers wanted something that would encourage visitors to listen and to tour the whole house. Bricolage is like a musical installation, performed by 12 musicians grouped in different locations throughout the decorated home. The setting creates a harmonious whole for keen listeners as well as a distinctive compositional and cultural experience in each room.

The goal, according to the conservancy, is an “immersive” feel that melds the visuals of the period furnishings, design elements, and architecture with the authentic music of diverse cultures for a “visceral, living experience of history.”

A Very Philly Christmas (a partnership of the Fairmount Park Conservancy and Philly and Parks & Rec) runs November 30 through December 31 at Cedar Grove, Laurel Hill Mansion, Lemon Hill Mansion, Historic Strawberry Mansion, and Woodford Mansion. Visitors are invited to “drop in” on the decorated homes throughout the month of December, with four days of special programming: Sounds of the Season on December 2, Family Day on December 3, Neighbor’s Day on December 9, and Flavors of the Season on December 10. For ticketing and transportation info, visit online.

Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra will present the world premiere of composer Jeri Lynne Johnson’s Bricolage: Philadelphia 1756 as part of A Very Philly Christmas’s Sounds of the Season program at Woodford Mansion, 2300 North 33rd Street, Philadelphia. Performances of Bricolage will run every 30 minutes on Saturday, December 2, from 1pm to 3:30pm. 

At right: Jeri Lynne Johnson conducts a performance earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra.)

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