Hidden from small

The Orchestra and Fairmount Park: A Match Made in Heaven

June 04, 2019

Hearing The Philadelphia Orchestra at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts on a beautiful summer evening has always felt like an occasion. The resounding majesty of the Orchestra’s legendary sound provides a unique feeling both in the covered seating and, with amplification, for the audience on the upper lawn.

The Mann Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Jordan August

This summer promises a number of special events, as well as the varied programming Orchestra fans have come to expect at the Mann. Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin will make his highly anticipated Mann debut on June 24 leading Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony. The other programs include a Berlioz concert, a performance of highlights from Broadway, an all-Rachmaninoff evening, a concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, and scores to two popular films, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, played lived while the movies are shown on giant screens.

In addition, a two-week free All-City Orchestra Summer Academy at the Mann for 60 to 80 young instrumentalists from grades 8-12 will provide an intensive period where the students can grow musically without the demands of regular schoolwork. Through the collaborative efforts of the Orchestra, the Mann, the School District of Philadelphia, and Project 440, the students will work in sectionals and rehearsals, and will be coached by Orchestra members and School District teachers. This speaks to the heart of The Philadelphia Orchestra’s ongoing mission to involve the next generation of music lovers.

The Orchestra’s history of playing in Fairmount Park goes back nearly a century. The evolution of the ensemble’s summer season involved a combination of philanthropy, practicality, and anticipated audience support. The practicality stemmed from the Orchestra’s original 30- to 32-week union contract in the 1920s, from October through May. Summertime meant a search for other jobs, and possibly a full-time position elsewhere.

In an attempt to retain the musicians, a group of female friends of the Orchestra imagined that eight weeks of summer concerts could be presented, with prices reduced to guarantee audiences. With the Academy of Music out of the picture as a venue due to its lack of air-conditioning, the determined women raised funds for a suitable outdoor venue in 1930, in the midst of the early months of the Depression.

The Robin Hood Dell. Photo by Jules Schick

They settled on a site in Fairmount Park that had been the approach for wagons to the Schuylkill River. It had become a favorite spot for picnickers, surrounded by elderly trees and sloping grassy expanses. Plans were drawn up to construct a stage and surrounding projecting shell halfway down the slope, with 6,500 seats and parkland on both sides for up to 9,000 attendees.

The city approved the idea, after becoming convinced that the women would fund the whole project. The stage could handle 100 musicians, and the looming shell was designed by none other than Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Leopold Stokowski. Under the stage were dressing spaces and room for storage.

Considering the poetic nature of tales from Sherwood Forest, the name Robin Hood Dell seemed highly appropriate, though it was probably named for the nearby colonial-era Robin Hood Tavern.

When the Dell opened, concerts were given every night for seven to eight weeks, with ticket prices as low as .21¢. Donors contributed $20,000-$25,000 for the season, which was eventually reduced to four nights a week and, in later years, to three, with rainout rescheduling dates available. Typical audiences ranged from 2,000 to 15,000 attendees during the first two decades of the Dell.

From 1930 to 1932, The Philadelphia Orchestra was listed in the programs, later in that decade as “The Men of The Philadelphia Orchestra,” in 1943 as “The Robin Hood Dell Orchestra” (which made some recordings under that name), and, finally in 1970, as “The Philadelphia Orchestra at the Robin Hood Dell.”

From the opening 1930 season, Eugene Ormandy was a frequent guest, well before taking over as the Orchestra’s music director, and Leopold Stokowski made a few appearances, as did Paul Whiteman, Fritz Reiner, and Pierre Monteux. Guest artists at the Dell included Vladimir Horowitz, Jascha Heifetz, Van Cliburn, Artur Rubinstein, Gregor Piatigorsky, Isaac Stern, Beverly Sills, Marian Anderson, and Henryk Szeryng, many introduced through Philadelphia manufacturer, philanthropist, and arts patron Fredric R. Mann.

Left to right: Fredric R. Mann, soprano Beverly Sills, and conductor Julius Rudel backstage at the Robin Hood Dell in 1969. Photo: Philadelphia Orchestra Archives

In 1941 the season opened with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture; real anti-tank guns borrowed from the National Guard Regiment were to be fired. But the musicians’ union insisted that they could only be fired by union men, and an impasse was ended when three musicians, who had been World War One artillerymen, fired off the guns to a deafening conclusion. The incident made national news, bringing attention to the Orchestra and Ormandy, and probably attracting patrons who otherwise would never have attended.

Former tubist Paul Krzywicki and Concertmaster Norman Carol recall that a large scrim needed to be rigged across the front of the Dell stage for shade from the morning sun at rehearsals, and to see the conductor’s baton. Carol also recalls the scorching heat and concern for instruments at rehearsals, and Ormandy’s insistence of fans, and eventual air conditioning, for the Mann stage.

In one Dell legend, Ormandy gave the cue for the offstage trumpet call in Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, while the musician was stopped by a Philadelphia policeman who said, “Stop that! Don’t you know there’s a concert going on?”

A major problem was constant rain, which necessitated rescheduling. Having been a city representative, its commerce director, and a US ambassador, Mann had the connections and the resources to imagine and shepherd a new facility, and he began planning a venue with cover. In time, his clout, persistence, and friendships with many civic leaders led to the planning, design, and construction of the Robin Hood Dell West in 1976, eventually renamed the Mann Music Center in 1979, and since 1998 the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, with a capacity of 14,000 including 4,700 seats under cover.

The guest artists and conductors who have appeared with the Orchestra at the Mann read like a “Who’s Who”: conductors Leonard Bernstein and John Williams; violinists Itzhak Perlman and Midori; cellists Mstislav Rostropovich and Yo-Yo Ma; pianists Martha Argerich and André Watts; sopranos Leontyne Price and Birgit Nilsson; and popular artists Aretha Franklin and Bobby McFerrin. And when pianist Van Cliburn decided to perform again after an 11-year absence from the concert stage, he chose to play with the Orchestra at the Mann, in 1989.

The Philadelphia Orchestra performing at the Mann Center. Photo by Jordan August

One early combination of the Orchestra and video production was a spectacular presentation of Sergei Eisenstein’s classic film Alexander Nevsky with the Orchestra performing Prokofiev’s score, led by Yuri Temirkanov in 1988. It was a precursor of the scores to Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, and other audience-favorite films that are now summer standards.

Ormandy led the Orchestra numerous times at the Mann. Riccardo Muti made several appearances, and Wolfgang Sawallisch conducted on rare occasions, including a special Tribute Concert on September 16, 2001, given in memory of those who lost their lives on 9/11. In 1990 Charles Dutoit took over as artistic director of the Orchestra’s series at the Mann, remaining for 10 years and fashioning programs that mixed unfamiliar and repertory gems. There was no artistic director for six years until Rossen Milanov took over from 2006 to 2010.

Today, the Orchestra enjoys additional summer residencies at the Bravo! Vail Music Festival and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, but the Mann remains a vital and treasured partner.

Throughout its summer history, The Philadelphia Orchestra has shared its magnificent music with millions of patrons, many who have never attended the Academy of Music or the Kimmel Center. It’s part of the Orchestra’s commitment to reach all Philadelphians, and exemplifies the heart of ensemble’s mission to share the enriching power of music.

Tom Di Nardo is a Philadelphia writer on the arts. His recent books include Listening to Musicians: 40 Years of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Performers Tell Their Stories: 40 Years Inside the Arts. He has also written Wonderful World of Percussion: My Life Behind Bars, a biography of legendary Hollywood percussionist Emil Richards.