Deep beneath the city, when you’re scurrying for the Market-Frankford Line, there's not a lot to remind you of civilization above. But for decades, there has been a mile marker of humanity at the bleak 15th Street station on the westbound platform: two photographic panels quietly declaring something important about the city and its values.
In one, a blotchy shot of the Academy of Music shows the interior all the way up to the chandelier. In the other, Eugene Ormandy has his right-hand baton in action, his facial expression and left hand near his heart clearly urging more emotion from the ensemble he led for 44 years. More than a half dozen men of the Philadelphia Orchestra -- back then it was largely men -- are identifiable, all string players.
Next time you're there, tip your hat to the ensemble, but do it soon. SEPTA is covering over the two panels -- as well as all the others, which include the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and a Mummer -- to be supplanted by tiled walls as part of a larger renovation project. A symbol for decades, cultural snapshots of a certain era, they are slated to be obscured in the next few weeks.
Philadelphia light artist Ray King has been commissioned to create illuminated colored panels with abstractions of Philadelphia street grids that will be hung on a total of 14 I-beam columns on the westbound and eastbound platforms.
One of the old photo panels, showing a boy in a sailor's cap in soft-pretzel bliss, is already gone from view.
It's not that you ever heard anyone call these images great art. But they were ours. And they had the great virtue of becoming antiques before our eyes. They were likely installed around the time of the American bicentennial celebration, says Jack McElwee, SEPTA's senior project manager for transit facilities.
One of the chief sources of pleasure in encountering these photos -- the grainy, sepia-toned Ormandy shot in particular -- was in the surprise of it: Music, right there in the subway (or at least the suggestion of it). But the other surprise was the ongoing tacit choice of representing the orchestra with Ormandy, who was its personification five musical leaders ago; since him, Muti, Sawallisch, Eschenbach, and Dutoit have all come and gone, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin occupies the podium now.
Who’s Who in the Photo
Frankly, Ormandy had probably overstayed his welcome on the Market-Frankford Line. Cities change, and so must the pictures that tell their story.
Ormandy became synonymous with the orchestra through a feat of duration. Next to him, Nézet-Séguin is a blip on the screen, having been music director since only 2012. He has a ways to go.
No one at SEPTA is soliciting suggestions for images to replace the orchestra, yet one is surely needed. But of what? What telegraphs the culture of the city as it is today? Ben and Rocky are always ready to step into the spotlight, and it's hard to argue with the wit of one and the grit of the other.
Still, there's something aspirational about having an orchestra symbolize your city. Nothing else crystallizes the idea of human harmony with quite as much elegance -- out of many, one. It’s a good message to keep hearing, whether you’re looking to understand the culture of a place superficially or deep beneath the surface.