Amid the switch to digital programming necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Philadelphia Orchestra launched Our City, Your Orchestra, a free conduit to its paid online content that places musicians in iconic spaces in and around Philly. On June 28, the first season culminates with the stream of a performance filmed at William Way LGBT Community Center.
The choice to perform at William Way, an important and iconic space for many queer Philadelphians, not only coincides with the close of Pride Month, but also reflects how far classical music has come in acknowledging the LGBTQ community. Although queer folks have populated the concertgoing audience—to say nothing of composers and conductors, from Tchaikovsky to Bernstein, who were members of the family—the industry has not always been hospitable to open expressions of sexuality.
A sea change in classical music
A sea change has happened in recent years. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the orchestra’s music director since 2012, has been openly gay his entire career. So has Jennifer Higdon, the Pulitzer Prize–winning composer and Curtis Institute professor whose string octet “Quiet Art” is featured on the William Way program. Their visibility and success have arguably paved the way for young artists who won’t have to fear choosing between a career and a fulfilling personal life.
“It’s becoming more important for me to just realize that both of us, we can be examples, in a way, to inspire young musicians who fear that this is going to be a problem in their profession and career advancement,” Nézet-Séguin said in a 2019 joint interview he gave to the New York Times with his partner, violist Pierre Tourville, who will also participate in the William Way concert. “And I want to embrace that role more and more.”
Another role embraced by Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra—as well as Higdon, a proud Philadelphia resident—is that of community steward. The Our City, Your Orchestra series reflects the mission that classical music should be available and accessible, not merely siloed in the concert hall. Other locations used this past season include Project HOME, The Franklin Institute, Harriet’s Bookshop, and the National Marian Anderson Museum.
“Audiences literally around the globe love and have loved our orchestra for many, many years,” David Kim, the orchestra’s concertmaster, told BSR. “But we don’t forget that we are really, at heart, a community resource. Philadelphia is one of the major cities in the United States, and we are always working to provide beauty in our community, in our neighborhood, to our fellow Philadelphians.”
Hidgon echoed that sentiment. “I think it’s absolutely crucial,” she said in an interview. “While I love concert halls, it’s much more important to be a part of your community, and for your community to be aware of what you’re doing. Making music in all kinds of places is ideal.”
Premiered in 2006, “Quiet Work” explores “the solitude in which artists work, and the passion and consistency that help create a work of art,” according to a program note. The piece itself will surely take on a new level of meaning after the isolation of the pandemic. Higdon mentioned that the filming of the octet was the first time she’d heard her music played live, in person, in 16 months.
“I’ve had a pretty steady clip of performances, amazingly, through the pandemic,” she continued. “A lot have been virtually, and I’ve rehearsed through Zoom with people, which is an interesting challenge. But one of the joys of being at the William Way Center was that I was there. It was amazing to hear the music live, to watch the cameramen have a reaction. The emotion in the room was extremely palpable.”
Kim looks forward to returning to in-person performances, both inside and out of Verizon Hall, come fall. In the meantime, he encourages the connoisseurs and the curious alike to partake in the unique experiences offered through Our City, Your Orchestra.
“I’m so proud that the Orchestra has collaborated with so many different organizations and has done so in a really professional way,” he said. “Nothing has been thrown together. These are beautiful, curated videos. And they are keeping us in front of our audience, keeping the community engaged.”
Image description: Violinists David Kim and Juliette Kang play in the foreground, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, wearing a red shirt, plays a piano a few feet away.