The Philadelphia Orchestra goes to prison -- and not for the reason you think

Next up: churches and community centers

(Left to Right) Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Kimberly Fisher, William Polk, Violin, John Koen, Cello, and Kerri Ryan, Viola, perform at the Philadelphia Detention Center, Friday, March 3, 2017, in Philadelphia.

When it comes to getting beyond their usual habitat, the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra will play for aficionados in Carnegie Hall or, once in a while, far away in Tokyo or Vienna.

One day last month, visiting composer Hannibal Lokumbe took a string quartet of orchestra musicians arguably farther afield -- into the Philadelphia Detention Center in Northeast Philadelphia's Holmesburg section. The composer/trumpeter handed out warm greetings and hugs as he and an entourage made their way past security, down a long corridor, through motorized iron gates, and into a vast, spare gym.

The piece the visiting musicians were about to play for their audience of about 120 inmates was about Anne Frank, “a young woman taken by the monsters, the Nazis. You’ll hear all that,” Hannibal told those gathered. Listen for the clouds and the stream, he urged. He gave them a job: to make a hissing sound at a certain point in the piece.

Beneath basketball hoops, the string quartet played the Hannibal composition A Star for Anne for a silent crowd. Some listened with eyes closed as the music moved through a pastoral section very much in the spirit of a child. Then the piece hit a jagged patch. Cellist John Koen knocked on the body of his instrument, and Kimberly Fisher drew a screeching train whistle sound from her violin. (Kerri Ryan, violist, rounds out the quartet.)

“Aus, Juden” -- Off, Jews, called violinist William Polk, stamping his foot. Listeners got their cue. The sound they made carried the weight of a quiet, tragic end -- a hissing meant to emulate the air upon which human ashes are carried.

The piece ended, and the audience -- men, all in light-blue uniforms -- rose to their feet, applauding and whistling.

“Thank you, brothers,” Hannibal said.

Hannibal, a Texas jazz trumpeter whose symphonic works are popular with orchestras around the country, was visiting the prison as part of a multiyear Philadelphia Orchestra artist-in-residency program that will take him into churches, schools, and homeless shelters in the area. He'll be back again in a couple of weeks to continue gathering material.

His inspirations from such visits  -- musical, societal, and spiritual -- promise to find their way into Healing Tones, a full-orchestra oratorio to be premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2019.  Hannibal said he had found resonance between Anne Frank’s story and the trauma experienced by many Holmesburg inmates. As he draws out their personal histories, he'll save them up for the oratorio. The hissing sound, he said, is likely to end up in Healing Tones.

Beyond the Avenue of the Arts

The Philadelphia Orchestra has long sought a life for itself outside the traditional concert hall. But the main mantra for decades before the 2001 opening of the Kimmel Center was about getting the ensemble into an acoustically superior setting where it could continue to do its 100 or so subscription concerts per season for an audience that knows its Schumann from its Schubert.

Now, the orchestra is striving to prove its worth in, yes, Carnegie and Verizon Halls, but also by getting out more often to places like homeless shelters, churches, and prisons.

Hannibal, whose home is a farm outside Austin, started working with the orchestra years ago. His first piece to be performed by the orchestra was African Portraits, in 1997, and his role has grown, especially with the Philadelphia Orchestra residency, funded by New Music USA and the League of American Orchestras.

The orchestra needs him now. If music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin is the cheery public face of the ensemble, Hannibal has become its great spiritualist and consulting conscience, a musical Brahmin. A tall, commanding 68-year-old with an unfailingly warm mien, Hannibal comes into town for blocks of 10 days or two weeks, leaving behind the sweet scent of goodwill.

He tends to transform any space he walks into, says orchestra artistic planning vice president Jeremy Rothman -- despite, or maybe because of, a presence not much like your typical American orchestra composer-in-residence. A chat with Hannibal quickly leads to the four tenets he asks those with whom he works to accept: to renounce violence, to acknowledge the presence of the divine, to keep a journal for themselves and their children, and to “fall in love with forgiveness.”

"When people first meet Hannibal, they’re like, ‘What? What is this?’ But for almost every musician we have worked with, that barrier comes down,” says Rothman.

“Yannick’s process with him, working with Hannibal for the piece [One Land, One River, One People] last year, was: ‘What did we get into here? What is this piece going to be like? When am I going to start seeing scores?’ And then, by the end of that process, the way the two of them connected as human beings and artists was really powerful.

"I know it’s easy to be a little bit skeptical about it," Rothman said. "But, actually, the guy has a way of inspiring people and getting you out of your comfort zone and thinking about things in a different way. He’s that kind of artistic figure that defies definition.”

Hannibal at Holmesburg

The detention center in Holmesburg where Hannibal has been spending time off and on, even before his current residency began, is a medium-security facility with about 820 inmates and is the intake facility for those with physical and mental illnesses requiring continuous care.

Talk after the recent string quartet performance took on the tone of a testimonial. “I can relate as an African American and had certain things in my history,” one inmate told the audience after the concert.

In fact, Hannibal has compared the dissonant section in A Star for Anne, when Anne Frank and others are being put on train cars, to the ships taking people from their land to lives here as slaves.

He had messages for the inmates about life in prison, and after: "Don’t ever let the beast let you think you’re alone. Don’t fall for that honky-donk. The babies need you. Your children need you. So if you need to drink muddy water and sleep in a hollow log, don’t come back in here. Because your babies need you.”

This orchestra’s interest in prisons and places with overlooked populations is part of a wave. Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti has made it a point to visit prisons and correctional facilities for youth. Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections project takes music to prisons, shelters, hospitals, and schools, and its Lullaby Project teams composers with expectant mothers to write a song specifically for each family.

In Philadelphia, the ensemble's social mission stems from a responsibility to the city, orchestra leaders say. “We ask a lot of people to support this art form, and we are convinced that the music is this powerful art form that can transform people and break down barriers,” says Rothman. “And if that’s truly who we are and we are part of the city we live in and rely upon, then we have an obligation to step up and be present in these places and do the right thing.”

Carole Haas Gravagno, the local philanthropist who has financed much of the orchestra’s outreach, was part of the entourage to Holmesburg. “The music doesn’t belong to any one of us, it belongs to all of us. I can’t think of anything more healing than music,” she told the inmates.

A social missionary is who Hannibal has been for years, and you get the sense that the rest of the orchestra world is simply coming around to his way of thinking.

“The music has to go to the marrow of society, to the marrow of human form,” he said. “That’s the purpose of it, to heal and restore, and to remind human beings of our divinity -- not only of our flaws, but of our beauty. That’s my mission in life now.”

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