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Embracing Community: Prometheus Chamber Orchestra

Samuel Thompson

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Published: March 14, 2014 at 4:29 AM [UTC]

“My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
– John F. Kennedy

Upon both hearing and meeting members of Prometheus Chamber Orchestra, one of Philadelphia’s newest string ensembles, one feels a wellspring of positive and constructive energy. Founded in 2013, Prometheus Chamber Orchestra is a self-conducted and self-managed orchestra in residence at the historic Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia. Comprised of 18 musicians, Prometheus seeks to use the self-conducted orchestra to change the way audiences experience orchestra concerts, the relationship of the orchestra to the community, and the way musicians perceive concert programming and artistic responsibility.

Prometheus Chamber Orchestra will present its second concert on Saturday, March 15, 2014. While in Philadelphia to perform with the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra last week, I had an opportunity to meet with four of the founding members of the group (Vena Johnson, violin; Jennifer Boorum, viola; Thomas La Forgia, cello and Lorenzo Raval, violin and viola) and found myself deeply impressed by the level of commitment that they show to the craft of musicmaking while also truly embracing the community that they serve in ways through actions somewhat unprecedented in the field of classical music.

“About three years ago, bassist Jerrell Jackson and I came up with this idea, inspired by groups like Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and A Far Cry,” Vena Johnson shared. “There was also the passion of playing music with our friends who are a part of the musical community in Philadelphia.”

Possessing an incredibly holistic perspective of the definition of community, Ms. Johnson continued. “While Philadelphia is a great musical city - home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Curtis Institute of Music, Temple University, many other fine ensembles - there are many fine players who are kind of wandering. Prometheus Chamber Orchestra came from all of those ideas, with the purpose of bringing people together in a way that is completely new to Philadelphia as well as being new to the concept of an orchestra as it relates to and interacts with the community it serves.”

When asked about the process of recruiting members, Jennifer Boorum shared that “Vena and Jerrell thought long and hard about who to approach with the idea of Prometheus. Part of that thought process was finding people who have had different experiences and different paths to come together." “

Indeed, the four members of Prometheus with whom I spoke have had a myriad of educational and life experiences. Ms. Johnson is a 2010 graduate of Temple University and teaches group violin classes in two El Sistema-inspired programs existent in West Philadelphia. Mr. La Forgia hails from North Carolina and is currently employed as a luthier at Mount Airy Violins and Bows. Violinist/violist Mr. Raval, also a Temple University graduate, is originally from the Philippines, and Ms. Boorum (also a Temple alumnus) is a teaching artist with both Tune Up Philly and Symphony in C.

The concepts of embracing, building and redefining “community” pervade many aspects of Prometheus Chamber Orchestra’s philosophy. Many of the orchestra’s members teach in programs that bring stringed instruments to underserved communities and the musicians have noted that both introducing young people in these communities to string playing has been incredibly beneficial both to the students and the teachers themselves. “Music has such an impact on the students that we’re teaching, and their parents – it changes families,” Ms. Johnson said.

“Many of us in the orchestra became friends through really being ‘on the ground’,” Ms. Boorum added. “If you live in Philadelphia and keep your eyes open, you see that there are communities like this that are almost forgotten. As an example, this community barely has a grocery store. One of the schools at which I teach through a Symphony in C program is in this neighborhood,” she continued. “Being a part of Prometheus has brought me back to the community where I did undergraduate work. This community has a feeling of home to me.”

A significant part of Prometheus’ mission – changing the relationship of of the orchestra to the community – influenced the orchestra’s choice of home. Prometheus Chamber Orchestra is currently in residence at North Philadelphia’s Church of the Advocate, a facility considered of the best American examples of Gothic Revival style and the only major building of its period based systematically on French sources. “The Advocate has a rich history in civil rights, as well as the arts,” Ms. Johnson shared. “This IS the place for us to have conversations about how to approach building an orchestra within a community, because so many conversations have happened here. This church has always had that role, as it was founded with very socially-conscious goals.”

The Church of the Advocate became a center of activism during the Civil Rights Movement, embracing the causes of both African-American and women’s rights. It was the site of several nationally significant events of both movements, and currently houses a stunning collection of wall murals created between 1973 and 1976 that were inspired by Biblical passages of oppression and captivity that continue to resonate with many people, documenting the critical social role held by inner city churches in the United States. Recently, the Advocate was the site of a discussion about gentrification and its devastating effects on longtime residents of communities like North Philadelphia that is slated to take place again at the United Nations.

 photo 2966c90b-b924-4027-b854-fe56b5e2c441_zps996e6359.jpg
Prometheus Chamber Orchestra in rehearsal at Church of the Advocate

“One of the concepts behind Prometheus Chamber Orchestra is ‘redefining the orchestra’,” Mr. La Forgia said. “Prometheus is in a neighborhood where one would not expect to see an orchestra. There seems to be the notion that classical music is for the socialites of the world, and that’s not true – it’s a people’s music, and there are people who will not go to Center City to hear a concert."

"If we’re rooted here," he continued, "getting to know people in the neighborhood, actively contributing to the church by playing at the soup kitchen and having people in the neighborhood know that we’re here to stay, we shall create a conversation and create a connection that will not only be good for classical music but also for a community that’s struggling.”

Through its presence at the Church of the Advocate, Prometheus Chamber Orchestra is asking a larger question, that being why one would not expect to see an orchestra in North Philadelphia, particularly considering that the Church of the Advocate is a wonderfully exquisite place. In brainstorming Prometheus, Mr. Jackson and Ms. Johnson thought that the Church of the Advocate would be an ideal venue: not only is the church a true gem unknown to many Philadelphians, but the neighborhood is also not a center of artistic activity, save for that taking place in the somewhat insulated world of Temple University. As luck would have it, the governing body of the church echoed the level of interest presented by the orchestra’s members, and a beautiful relationship has continued to develop

“It’s our hope that our programming will reflect the issues in this community and in Philadelphia at large,” Ms. Johnson said. “Our artistic identity is informed by our relationship here - we’re not descending upon a community and forcing our culture onto them.” One large part of the orchestra’s agenda is to have a meeting with both advisory boards and community leaders, during which the orchestra members will ask what the community leaders see as needs within the North Philadelphia neighborhood which the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra calls home.

The fact that the members of Prometheus Chamber Orchestra have a real desire to interact with members of their community and understand the community’s needs is clear proof of profound understanding of how to become an integral part of any community. Another example of this understanding is that the first concert was advertised primarily via word-of-mouth. This was done purposefully, both to engage members of the immediate community and to ensure that those citizens realized that the activities taking place were first and foremost for them.

Mr. Raval, an incredibly articulate young man, elaborated on the ensemble’s built-in lack of the perceived posture of entitlement that plagues many legacy institutions: “What we do is that we don’t expect the community to come to us - we go to them. We have made this community our home, so we want to offer our artistry to this community. We regularly do soup kitchen concerts at the church, we do concerts that would inform and enlighten the community, and we also see another side of ourselves as artists through our programming, wherein we can program concerts from being inspired by the community around us.”

The depth of sincerity that fuels Prometheus Chamber Orchestra is not only visible in its approach to both embracing and working in a community: the orchestra is also truly self-managed, both allowing and requiring members to contribute to both artistic and administrative issues. Concerts are curated by members of the orchestra, with its first concert being the result of taking suggestions from all of the musicians and deciding a program by voting. Saturday’s concert, the second in the season that is referred to as “Season Zero” (“We’ve been figuring so many things out and experimenting,” Mr. La Forgia said), was curated by Mr. Raval and cellist Mirjam Ingolffson and features Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Charterhouse Suite, Bartok’s Rumanian Folk Dances, Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei and pieces by Sibelius and Grieg.

“The concept of group curating,” Ms. Johnson said, “was an experiment through which we could both showcase the orchestra to the immediate community and find out our capabilities as an ensemble. Everyone had a different vision, and it was great to see where everyone was coming from.” This concept is reflective of the truly collaborative and democratic nature of Prometheus as well as reflective of the depth of each member musician. To date, not only have musicians remained enthusiastic about sharing their musical ideas, the orchestra now maintains a database of over fifty works and many complete programs that will be utilized for future programs.

Musician involvement in this self-managed ensemble also includes participation in the administrative aspects involved in successfully running an organization. “In addition to being musicians, each member brings something else to the table,” Mr. Raval said. “Jennifer is our web/social media developer/manager, Thomas and Vena are our fundraising and development committee. I am currently in the process of writing the organization’s bylaws and was in charge of curating this program – “

“And promotional materials for this concert were made by Liz Cary, who had no formal experience with graphic design before,” Ms. Boorum added. “Everybody is jumping in and trying to contribute what we can.”

The inclusion of many voices in the organization’s collective philosophy is paramount to the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra’s musical and social mission. “Responsibility comes from every player,” Ms. Johnson said. “Everything – repertoire, stylistic matters, operational issues – is voted on by every ensemble member in Prometheus, and that level of commitment definitely changes the quality of the work we’re doing.”

As this is the first year of a groundbreaking venture, the members of Prometheus Chamber Orchestra have many plans for the upcoming months and years. “We hope to have a summer gathering during which we will both play as much music as possible and also really hash out what we want democratically as a group,” Mr. La Forgia shared. There are also plans to start an educational component that includes a teaching artist system.

First and foremost, however, is the fact that the members of Prometheus Chamber Orchestra have truly embraced the organization’s mission, and see the results of their commitment on a daily basis. Ms. Johnson shared that she and Jerrell were recently approached by a member of their North Philadelphia community who said with excitement, “You’re with Prometheus!”

“This person was a member of this community,” Ms. Johnson said. “That interaction really told me that something positive is happening. With the historical significance of the Church of the Advocate, including the tremendous of works displayed in the sanctuary, we understand why we want to be here and the type of statement that we want to make. We all love Philadelphia, and while we have all come to Prometheus Chamber Orchestra from different angles, our shared goal is to make a statement of our commitment both to Philadelphia and to this community.”

* * *
Prometheus Chamber Orchestra presents “The Advent of Spring” on Saturday, March 15, 2014 at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. Admission is free.

Prometheus Chamber Orchestra is a program of CultureTrust Greater Philadelphia, which operates under the fiscal stewardship of CultureWorks Greater Philadelphia. For more information on Prometheus Chamber Orchestra, please visit their website: www.prometheusorchestra.org. For information on the Church of the Advocate and its history, please visit www.churchoftheadvocate.org.

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