Manayunk's secret performance-space gem hosts Orchestra 2001

Adam Lesnick, executive director of Orchestra 2001, at the Venice Island Performing Arts and Recreational Center in Manayunk, where his musicians perform Saturday, Feb, 18. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer.

Like a cherry on the top of an architecturally complicated sundae, the Venice Island Performing Arts and Recreation Center's auditorium is hosting yet another performance by musicians who are left wondering why they're only now discovering it.

The space, which opened in October 2014, is "perfect for a midsized ensemble like us," said Adam Lesnick, executive director of Orchestra 2001. "It's hard to find an auditorium in Philadelphia that's over 150 seats, affordable, and with good parking. The loading dock is right here off the parking lot. Our seven-foot grand piano comes right in the door. It doesn't get any easier than that. We need four more of these in Philadelphia."

With the kind of program Orchestra 2001 will perform at 3 p.m. Saturday, the 250-seat auditorium allows something more than a concert to happen. Bizarre, explosive, and even terrifying, Peter Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King features a feverishly deluded protagonist, portrayed by Randall Scarlata, singing and shouting in costume, and believing himself to be King George III.

It's hard to think of any theater being an ideal home for the piece, but the orchestra's artistic director, Jayce Ogren, says this is it, thanks to the full lighting and technical capabilities.

The flexible musical collective that is Orchestra 2001 -- you'll rarely see the same ensemble at every concert -- means no one venue will suit every program equally well. "We like the idea of being homeless," said Lesnick. "It forces us to find just the right venue for each program. ... Usually, you get either a black-box theater that's good for theater but kind of dead for music, or we get a live, churchlike acoustic. But this is very adaptable." And comfortable: The seating area is attractive, blond maple with red seats -- lightly upholstered so as not to absorb too much sound.

The theater's steep rake guarantees good sight lines, with extensive rigging possible. Backstage space is surprisingly roomy, and a substantial curtain can be lowered onto the lip of the stage to turn that space into an extra room for classes should extra space be necessary.

Clearly, the performing-arts space -- funded by the Philadelphia Water Department as part of a project that also includes a massive stormwater-runoff tank and parkland -- is based on the right kind of models, including the Annenberg Center's Prince Theatre space. The site has accessibility from SEPTA and on-site parking for $4 for two hours.

Even those who know that can't help being a bit incredulous: What's a place like this doing in Manayunk?

Modern music in alternative venues has grown increasingly fashionable here and elsewhere, whether with Bowerbird's concerts at the Rotunda or the New York Philharmonic venturing out to Brooklyn's National Sawdust (a converted sawdust factory) for its modern music concerts. The risk, though, is testing the public's willingness to hunt for its music.

At Venice Island, the usual Orchestra 2001 audience from the  Main Line will likely be augmented by a hipster contingent from Manayunk and  like-minded Conshohocken, as Saturday's concert also includes "Murder Ballades" by Bryce Dessner, guitarist for the indy rock band the National who has a side career in alternative-classical composition. Less happily, though, Lesnick discovered that his Saturday concert coincides with a Mummers Mardi Gras event in Manayunk that could hamper motorists' access to the island, situated between the canal and the Schuylkill.

Fully visible to the backed-up traffic on I-76, the Venice Island center seems to be waiting for bigger things to happen inside, quietly hosting the city-sponsored Young Performers Theater Camp, occasional Fringe Festival events, and, more recently, the Rat Pack-style concerts known as the Summer Club that are booked the first Monday of each month for the rest of 2017.

"It's organically growing, but it's slow," said Jane Lipton, executive director of the Manayunk Development Corp. "The Water Department isn't in the habit of building theaters."

Orchestra 2001 "Love and Madness" program, 3 p.m. Saturday at Venice Island Performing Arts and Recreation Center, 7 Lock St., Manayunk. Tickets: $15-35. Information: 267-687-6243 or www.orchestra2001.org.