“I am just so excited that we got to be a ‘typical’ family for a few hours! It was an amazing gift. Your generosity was healing for our family!”
Monica Simon’s experience with her family at our first-ever sensory-friendly concert in Verizon Hall perfectly encapsulates the enriching power of music and the intention of The Philadelphia Orchestra’s inaugural “We’re HEAR Week.” The concert—designed to be welcoming, inclusive, and comfortable for individuals with sensory sensitivities and cognitive and learning differences—was the culmination of a very exciting week, a series of 30 events in more than 25 locations with one goal—to connect communities through music.
A young patron helps conduct The Philadelphia Orchestra during its first-ever sensory-friendly concert. Photo by Jessica Griffin
Simon’s son Jesse has a rare genetic syndrome called Pitt-Hopkins. There are only about 500 known cases worldwide. For a few hours on September 28, the Simon family was able to come together to enjoy an evening of music in a friendly and relaxed setting. “He loves music,” Simon said of Jesse. “He recognized several pieces.”
Anita Wright and her daughter Britany also relished the opportunity to experience beautiful music together. “This was the perfect opportunity for us to come out as a family and support Britany,” said Wright. “We don’t get a chance to take advantage of most arts activities in this type of venue. It was just awesome!”
Anita Wright and Britany at the Instrument Petting Zoo before the sensory-friendly concert. Photo by Jessica Griffin
In partnership with Art-Reach, the Orchestra created a unique performing arts experience, complete with low lighting; open concert hall doors; the ability for patrons to move, talk, or verbalize during the concert; a special cool-down area; fidget toys and noise-canceling headphones; and trained musicians, staff, ushers, and volunteers.
Cindy Pyrih’s son A.J. has autism. “It would be very difficult for him to sit quietly in his seat,” she said. “I can't describe how happy it made me to watch him enjoy the performance with complete freedom to be himself. He hummed and rocked and bounced in his seat, and the entire time he had an expression of true joy on his face. He felt that music with his whole body and soul.”
A future Philadelphia Orchestra trombone player? Photo by Jessica Griffin
The sensory-friendly concert, led by Assistant Conductor Kensho Watanabe, featured a signer for those with hearing disabilities. Photo by Jessica Griffin
The Orchestra gets a standing ovation at the conclusion of the sensory-friendly concert. Photo by Jessica Griffin
“We’re HEAR Week” was an exciting way to launch a season of service in support of the Orchestra’s HEAR initiative, a portfolio of programs that promotes Health, champions music Education, enables broad Access to Orchestra performances, and maximizes impact through Research.
The week offered an incredible opportunity for the Orchestra to connect with—and give back to—the communities that form the tapestry of our great city. Working with community partners at hospitals, schools, and non-profit centers, we held public performances, side-by-side rehearsals, music therapy sessions, instrument donations, master classes, and more.
We were able to enjoy music-making as a restorative experience at Taller Puertorriqueño, in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastating impact on Puerto Rico.
A wind quintet featuring (left to right) Associate Principal Flute David Cramer, oboist Jonathan Blumenfeld, horn player Sara Cyrus, bassoonist Angela Anderson Smith, and Principal Clarinet Ricardo Morales performed Ibert’s Three Short Pieces at the Neighborhood Chamber Concert at Taller Puertorriqueño. Photo by Jessica Griffin
A guest at Taller Puertorriqueño holds up one of the Orchestra’s HEAR t-shirts distributed at the concert. Photo by Jessica Griffin
The Taller concert was enjoyed by people of all ages. Photo by Jessica Griffin
We saw students at Esperanza Academy Charter School light up as they received brand new instruments to help them begin their musical journeys.
Philadelphia Orchestra President and CEO Allison Vulgamore holds a violin that was one of a number of instruments donated to the Esperanza Academy Charter School by the Orchestra through its buy one, give one program with the Eastman Instrument Company. Standing with Vulgamore to receive the donation are Esperanza President Rev. Luis Cortés, Jr., and two Esperanza students. Photo by Jessica Griffin
Assistant Conductor Kensho Watanabe led a small ensemble of Orchestra members at Esperanza. “We spend so much time in Verizon Hall in Center City and we love to come out and play for you,” said Watanabe. “This is what really makes us feel like we're part of your community.” Photo by Jessica Griffin
Violinist Philip Kates joins Esperanza students after the performance. Photo by Jessica Griffin
And we helped bring smiles to children experiencing health challenges in hospitals and schools throughout the city.
A string quintet performed for students at HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy. Photo by Matthew Hall
Violinist Barbara Govatos addresses the students at HMS School. Photo by Matthew Hall
At the Overbrook School for the Blind, a string quintet not only performed a delightful program, but they also shared a skit for the students about the importance of each individual instrument in an orchestra.
“The storyline that the Orchestra wove through their performance really exemplified inclusiveness and the importance of everyone’s excellent attributes, skills, and talents, as well as their challenges,” said Todd Reeves, CEO and executive director of Overbrook. “That intention is music to our ears.”
At Overbrook School for the Blind, (left to right) violinists Daniel Han and Jason DePue, Assistant Principal Bass Joseph Conyers, Assistant Principal Cello Yumi Kendall, and Assistant Principal Viola Kerri Ryan not only performed but also brought some laughter to the concert.
For Salena Gaston, a student in Overbrook’s School to Work Program, the performance was particularly inspiring. “I want to be a musician one day. Just because I’m vision impaired doesn’t stop me from trying.”
At another stop during the week, Orchestra musicians participated in a side-by-side rehearsal with the Penn Med Symphony. Daniel Zhang, a third-year student in Penn Medicine’s MD-PhD program, grew up playing the violin and conducting orchestras. “It was really important to me that I continue to be involved in these activities, even though I was going on to med school,” he said.
For Zhang, performing in the Symphony provides stress relief and serves as an opportunity for relationship building. “It’s been a tremendous pleasure connecting with people at Penn who I never would have met otherwise.” And performing side-by-side with Philadelphia Orchestra musicians? “It’s really exciting! Though we’ve done something very different with our lives, we all share a passion for music.”
Daniel Zhang conducts members of The Philadelphia Orchestra and the Penn Med Symphony for a side-by-side rehearsal. Photo by Jessica Griffin
It was that shared passion that brought people together throughout the week for a truly memorable experience. Monica Simon said it best: “It was magical!”
For more on our “We’re HEAR Week” activities: