Hidden from small

A Tale of Two Innovators: The Barnes/Stokowski Festival

October 01, 2018

Courage in the art world and on the concert stage means taking risks. The Barnes/Stokowski Festival celebrates the innovations of two men who took risks, supported living artists, and gave greater access to the arts because they believed in the power of art to communicate.

Dr. Albert Barnes believed that exposure to art improved creative output and critical thinking, thereby inviting those it touched to become more creative, critical thinkers and participators in democracy. Barnes also regarded music as an integral component to the artistic and educational experience at his Foundation, writing: “Of all the arts, music is the fittest for the expression of emotion.”

Leopold Stokowski gave dozens of world, US, and Philadelphia premieres of 20th-century masterpieces, many of which he presented with The Philadelphia Orchestra. His commitment to youth and children’s concerts of orchestral repertoire and projects like Fantasia inspired countless musicians and composers.

In the same spirit, SoundLAB’s appearance in the Barnes/Stokowski Festival extends the musical influences of these two visionaries into the present day. This contemporary music ensemble will debut with two free concerts (October 16 and 18) celebrating the rich history of musical and artistic innovation in Philadelphia by these two trailblazing leaders. Both came from humble backgrounds. Barnes may have made his fortune in pharmaceuticals, but he began his life in poverty and with little access to art. Stokowski was a lifelong champion of living composers, and his work redefined major aspects of orchestral sound, concert curation, and the orchestra’s role as a cultural institution, yet he grew up the son of a London-based cabinet-maker in relative obscurity. How did these two individuals become the pioneers we know today who redefined their respective artistic transitions?

An(other) American in Paris

We start as Barnes did in Paris of 1912, during his first visit and exposure to an era of immense innovation and creativity in the arts and music. There, he met great thinkers and artists from all over the world, including Gertrude Stein, Henri Matisse, and other luminaries of their fields. The paintings with which Barnes fell in love were exceptional for more than their visual allure: The quality of how each painting foregrounded the perception, technique, and psychology of the artist was a quality that Barnes found particularly compelling.

The Barnes Foundation galleries. Photo by Tom Crane and Benjamin Riley

Yet Barnes’s love of contemporary art of his time was not widely shared in Philadelphia prior to his establishment of the Foundation and his classes. The first time that Barnes attempted to show his collection in a 1923 public showing at PAFA, the artwork, including Van Gogh’s iconic masterpiece The Postman (Joseph-Étienne Roulin), was strongly criticized. Scathing headlines like “Academy Opens Notable Exhibit: Modern Art Bewilders” and “America’s $6,000,000 Shrine for All the Craziest ‘Art’” appeared in multiple papers.

Barnes’s manner of presenting his avant-garde artwork at the Foundation was equally revolutionary. John Dewey’s educational philosophy, work, and writings exerted a great influence on Barnes, most notably Art as Experience and the concept of “learning by doing.” Barnes believed that the direct experience with a work of art was the ideal form of art instruction. Unlike other museums of the day, which through placards and didactics saw to instruct why the art was important and relevant, Barnes included no didactics and only a small name plate on each painting’s frame identifying the artist.

Even today, this act remains revolutionary; in the connected age, the 24-hour news cycle and demands of social media offer a seemingly endless commentary on culture, society, and trends. Barnes invites an alternative: Take time with something new, notice its relationships to the artwork surrounding it, and discover new connections based on the observations that you, the individual observer, uniquely identify. Then be prepared to go back, try again, and discover more.

At first glance, it can be bewildering. When visiting a museum, what’s the first thing you look at, the didactic or the painting? To that end, Barnes ultimately did supply didactics: He positioned other works of art in what he called “ensembles” to evoke comparison and analysis by the observer. During Barnes’s life, the ensembles were dynamic. Barnes was constantly rearranging the works to highlight different techniques taught at the Foundation. He referred to the ensembles as “lesson plans,” which he constantly reshaped to draw new and substantive connections between the works of art, both old and new. Dr. Barnes was a scientist and an avid supporter of the arts. The Foundation he established became during his lifetime a world-renowned laboratory for ideas, critical thinking, and participation in the arts, reshaping the Philadelphia arts community.

A lesser known fact was that Barnes was also a great lover of music. He viewed music as integral to the artistic and educational experience at the Foundation and played music in his classes. He also hosted concerts in the galleries and with his wife, Laura, in their home, Laureston. When you walk into the main gallery at the modern-day Foundation, you will still see Barnes’s own Magnavox record player located in the north wall of the Main Gallery, just as it appeared in Merion. As Barnes wrote: “Of all the arts, music is the fittest for the expression of emotion.” It was a happy coincidence, then, that Leopold Stokowski was his neighbor.

My Neighbor, The Maestro

Leopold Stokowski enlivened Philadelphia with an equally compelling spirit of innovation. His tenure with The Philadelphia Orchestra (1912-41) was a remarkably fruitful period for orchestral innovation and contemporary works. The famous “Philadelphia Sound” was born in part from Stokowski’s experimentation with orchestra seating and his meticulous implementation of new bowing concepts. The modern standard position of the first and second violins adjacent on the left of the stage when viewed from the audience was a Stokowskian innovation. Stokowski also experimented readily with new media, most famously with Disney’s Fantasia. We must not underestimate the symbolism of a “high art” maestro shaking hands with a cartoon mouse, nor the extent to which this movie inspired generations of music-lovers, performers, and composers (including a seven-year-old George Benjamin, the British composer, whose work At First Light appears on SoundLAB’s October 18 program). Stokowski cared deeply about education, and in addition to hosting concerts at home for youth, he established children’s concerts in 1921 and supported ongoing initiatives to educate the youth about orchestral repertoire, both from the standard repertory and that of living composers. In addition, Stokowski was supportive of the Barnes Foundation, even speaking at its opening in 1925. In Barnes, Stokowski found an avid supporter of contemporary music: Once, after the Orchestra received a scathing review in the Philadelphia Public Ledger for the performance of a program featuring works by German expatriot Arnold Schoenberg, Barnes wrote a “speech” that he hoped Stokowski would read to his audience at his next concert. Barnes wrote,

Leopold Stokowski and The Philadelphia Orchestra. Photo: Philadelphia Orchestra Association Archives

“It is so easy to condemn and so difficult to shake off the comfort of our easy-going lives, that we are all prone to reject or ridicule what we will not make an effort to understand. That is what our great philosopher William James meant when he said ‘we commend the familiar and condemn what is new and strange.’”

It is impossible to fully appreciate Barnes’s love of music without talking about his relationship with Stokowski. At times stormy, at times warm and highly collaborative, the two admired each other’s work and communicated often about the art of their time. Barnes was a keen lover of orchestral music and held season tickets to The Philadelphia Orchestra. He would regularly encourage Stokowski to continue programing contemporary music by living composers. Stokowski and his wife, Olga Samaroff, attended concerts in the Barnes’s home and once Barnes hosted a concert for the conductor, with an audience of two: Barnes and Stokowski. Events in the Barnes/Stokowski Festival will further explore the unique relationship between these two men in greater detail.

Stokowski was on fire for the music of his time, and across his career gave dozens of world and American premieres of now canonical works by the century’s most respected composers, including such 20th-century masterpieces as the world premieres of Varese’s Amériques (1926) and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances (1940), and the US premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (both its concert version in 1922 and its staged version in 1930). Like the Foundation under Barnes, The Philadelphia Orchestra with Stokowski was a center and laboratory for innovation, education, and discovery, which went on to affect the entire landscape of classical music in America.

SoundLAB at the Barnes/Stokowski Festival

This is where we draw our inspiration for SoundLAB. We believe that the joy of discovery and innovation is essential to the experience of music, and we seek to empower and amplify that creative impulse in our audiences and musicians alike. The musicians of SoundLAB come from across the United States and the world to make music together at the Barnes/Stokowski Festival, all innovative chamber musicians with a specialty in contemporary music performance. Many are composers and curators as well as performers. Our concert programs, in celebration of the two pioneers whom this Festival honors, include all independent-minded creators who reinvent their crafts beyond any one school of thought. Ninety percent of these are living composers, drawn from America and across the world. Some are well-established; others will be new to Philadelphia. The works chosen for SoundLAB are arranged in an “ensemble” fashion, contextualizing and counterposing ideas, forms, and styles not only within an evening, but across both concerts and the entire Festival’s events.

We are thrilled to host one of the most respected and beloved award-winning composers of our day, Augusta Read Thomas, as SoundLAB’s composer-in-residence, and the internationally renowned JACK Quartet as SoundLAB’s guest artists with SoundLAB at the Barnes/Stokowski Festival. Those artists are defined by displaying that perfect marriage of raw passion, precision of craftsmanship, and depth of purpose in their art.  

Art is a barometer of society, and the artistic discipline benefits most from access to the arts and free exchange of ideas, to enliven individual voices, take risks, and kindle new ideas. Stokowski proudly advocated for living composers and the rich musicality and history of The Philadelphia Orchestra, even in the face of sharp criticism for the living composers he championed. Barnes established his Foundation at a time when contemporary art was harshly spurned. He believed that exposure to great art held the promise of a more critical citizenry and a more just democracy, because ultimately, a single individual can make a dramatic difference. The testimony of one artist, one creator, one visionary, can change the world. Albert Barnes and Leopold Stokowski were such people, and their influence lives on today in Philadelphia and across the world. Both men might have agreed with Gustav Mahler, who said, "Tradition ist nicht die Anbetung der Asche, sondern die Weitergabe des Feuers" (Tradition is not the adoration of the ashes, but the passing of the fire).

Learn more about The Philadelphia Orchestra's Barnes/Stokowski Festival here.

The Barnes/Stokowski Festival is generously sponsored through a gift from Mari and Peter Shaw.

The participation of SoundLAB in the Barnes/Stokowski Festival has been made possible through the New Music Fund, a program of FACE Foundation, with generous funding from the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States, the Florence Gould Foundation, Fondation CHANEL, the French Ministry of Culture, the Institut Français-Paris, and SACEM (Société des Auteurs, Compositeurs, et Editeurs de Musique). Additional support is provided by the University of Pennsylvania Music Department’s Contemporary Music Series and the American Composers Forum Philadelphia Chapter.

Robert Whalen is music director of SoundLAB and Katherine Skovira is artistic director.