There was, at dusk Wednesday, a persistently utopian dreamlike aura that could be felt settling over Pastorius Park. A leisurely crowd of several hundred gathered on the sloping lawn that led down to a still, diminutive moat and a group of string players playing Mozart just beyond.
The park's amphitheater is without a doubt one of the great tucked-away charms of tucked-away Chestnut Hill. This is the 68th year of summer concerts in the suburban - if sylvan - enclave, and Wednesday came with some history. One of the Philadelphia Orchestra's most successful neighborhood concerts happened here in 2007.
This week's return was not by the entire ensemble, but by a string quintet, in an event billed as one of the orchestra's three neighborhood concerts this summer. The neighborhood series was launched in 2000 as a way of getting the ensemble into, well, the neighborhoods. Last year's series included a concert in Verizon Hall, which, many noticed, is exactly where the orchestra is usually found.
If last year's series left undernourished the neighborhood part of the neighborhood concerts, this year neglects the orchestra aspect. Of the three announced concerts, only one - July 1 at Penn's Landing - actually delivers the orchestra.
Does it matter? After all, Pastorius Park Wednesday night was a special kind of magic - the feeling of ease in the air as listeners lay out on blankets with their children and dogs and picnics (those Chestnut Hillers like their wine), while waltzes, polkas, and Dvorák's String Quintet in G Major rolled across the lawn. In a week, especially, where it was possible to dwell in the horror of the Orlando massacre or the apparent return of fascism, this psychic clearing in a noisy world startled with its power.
And yet, compared to a full orchestra, it was weak tea. There was a nice nod to the community: Four Germantown Friends School students joined in for the first movement of Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik. The ensemble was pleasantly amplified.
But enthusiastic as the audience was, they weren't over-the-moon demonstrative. Why? A full orchestra isn't something content to sit in the distance; it envelopes and possesses.
Orchestral music is also its own best salesman. One of the arguments for getting into Camden, Upper Darby, and Bucks County is to show what audiences are missing downtown. A chamber music concert, bliss though it may be, sells something else. The quintet of players from the orchestra was several notches above competent, but their meaning, their value, comes from being orchestral players.
Orchestra leaders are hardly deaf to this argument, but exporting the entire ensemble is expensive, and the current budget does not allow for an ambitious neighborhood series. But let this summer's experiment with chamber music fool no one. It's only the Philadelphia Orchestra when there's an orchestra in the room - or in the woods.