Serendipity in the City

"What's the band? They sure got young ones in there," said one by-stander.

Well, yes.

The Philadelphia Orchestra at City Hall, Sept. 2008. Photo: Tom Gralish

"What - is the president coming?" wondered another.

No, not the president, though Frank Rizzo put in an appearance, or at least his statue did, perched across the street from the Philadelphia Orchestra's hour-long rehearsal this morning on the northwest side of City Hall. It was more of a sound-check, really, for the orchestra's last neighborhood concert of the season tonight at 7.

At first, the serendipitous introduction of a symphony orchestra into the proasic workday could only arrest the attention of a couple of dozen listeners. By noon, though, at least a hundred were applauding as conductor Rossen Milanov led the ensemble through a half dozen or so works.

Music changes the city. A passing biker seemed to capture something of the spirit of Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmila Overture. Subway riders walked up a flight of stairs with unusual nobility during an excerpt from Swan Lake. An ambulance was nice to hold the wailing until after the climactic moment in the "Nimrod" movement from Elgar's Enigma Variations. As a city soundtrack, nothing is sweeter and nothing has greater powers of transfiguration than an orchestra.

Music changes people, too. Not everyone, of course. "We've got a lot of work to do," yelled one man, oblivious to the somewhat unusual arrival of an orchestra in his midst. Improbably, some walked past the orchestra impervious, shouting into cell phones over the Tchaikovsky (who were these people - New Yorkers?). Others - policemen, reporters, manila-envelope-toting City Hall workers - slowed. Froze. And paid attention.

The fact that no one was expecting music only heightened the impact.

"I'm verklempt," said a red-haired, purple-shirted woman carrying a Jones New York bag to a passing dog-walker. "I can't believe it's a symphony orchestra."

Even Frank Rizzo's proxy didn't escape unaffected. He never looked more authoritarian than he did during the opening growl of Sibelius' Finlandia. Or maybe that hand lifted in the air was simply his way of asking the brass to hold it down.