Saturday, April 23, 2016

HEAR Initiative Makes the Philadelphia Orchestra Look Like a Do-Gooding Think Tank, and That's Awesome

More and more, orchestras in the United States are investing in non-traditional, community-based programs that are not only helping to re-establish themselves as part of the civic fabric but are also broadening the notion of what constitutes an orchestra musician.

Earlier this month, the Philadelphia Orchestra became the latest and most prominent American orchestra to take this step when it announced its HEAR initiative. It's cutesy acronym that stands for Health, Education, Access, Research, but is looks like the work behind it is anything but frivolous.

An example of a HEAR project is the orchestra's partnership with the Temple University Arts and Quality of Life Research Center and the Broad Street Ministry. After receiving music therapy training, orchestra musicians perform together with ministry guests, who include victims of homelessness and abuse. Temple University researchers then observe these performances to determine, as the ministry website puts it, "the impact that this creative process will have on the well-being of our guests over time." (Musicians participated in one of these sessions in early March.)

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that, in addition to strengthening its mentoring relationship with the All City Orchestra, the orchestra will partner with Martin Ihrig of the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education to map the music education ecosystem in an attempt to provide data to policy makers and administrators as they attempt to make the most of their budgets and programs.

The Philadelphia Orchestra--not that long ago bankrupt--and its CEO, Allison Vulgamore, could be taking a big risk in embracing such programs. Will new donors support these activities? Will big donors who like fancy concerts in big halls be turned off? Will the musicians lose patience with programs that are outside their traditional role? These are surely questions, Vulgamore, staff, board and musicians are all pondering.

But the reward here could be great: aside from doing good, the orchestra can position itself as a valuable, thought leading institution in Philadelphia that drives cultural policy decisions. It can also create the model for what other top-tier orchestras in big cities (or not-top-tier orchestras in not-so-big cities) can do to make themselves relevant.