The Dell rises

The refurbished Dell Music Center will host the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra's free concert Saturday.
The refurbished Dell Music Center will host the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra's free concert Saturday. (VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 22, 2014

The renovated, refurbished, rebranded Dell Music Center makes a little history Saturday with a free performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 by the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, featuring a cadre of amateur guest musicians and singers drawn from the region.

It will be the first time the Dell has hosted classical music since 1976, when the Philadelphia Orchestra, which had made the North Philadelphia venue its summer home since 1935, left for the Mann Music Center. The Dell was forced to reinvent itself, becoming one of the few venues in the region dedicated to urban music.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for us to introduce an orchestra to [people in] the community who may be familiar with the venue, but not with this genre of music," said Susan Slawson, first deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department, who manages the venue.

The Dell, which begins its official season July 10 with headliners the O'Jays, also will have a chance this weekend to show off its new facade and entry, which is flanked on either side by a giant two-piece mural. It's one of the final pieces of a series of renovations at the venue since 2009, including a one-year $6.5 million project to rip up and redo the cement foundation.

"The inside looks brand-new, but the front of the facility still looks like it was from 50, 60 years ago," she said. Slawson added that Mayor Nutter will help formally unveil the new entrance at a ceremony Thursday.

Slawson said the concert will be in keeping with the Dell's mission to offer entertainment to an urban community.

"This is an orchestra with an African American conductor," she said referring to the Philadelphia-based ensemble's music director, Jeri Lynne Johnson. "And it prides itself on having musicians from every ethnicity."

Johnson said Black Pearl, founded in 2007, strives to feature musicians from every group. "Our musicians at any given point are 25 percent Asian, 25 percent Caucasian, 25 percent Latino, and 25 percent Afro American," she said. "To have an orchestra that does not have diversity, no matter what kind of outreach they do in the community, won't matter if different kinds of people don't see themselves reflected in the group."

Johnson said she chose Beethoven's last symphony because it has a message of communal unity and harmony.

"It's inspired by 'Ode to Joy,' a poem by Schiller that celebrates brotherly love," she said.

Regular folks won't just be reflected in the orchestra, they will be part of it at Saturday's concert.

"We have so many talented amateur musicians and amateur groups in Philadelphia," said Johnson, "so we said, 'Let's invite some to play with us.' "

After a rigorous audition last November, the Black Pearl took on 17 amateur musicians for the orchestra itself and more than 30 singers for the choir, just for Saturday's performance. (The ensemble Saturday also will feature 58 Black Pearl musicians and 20 professional singers.)

Guest players include Devin Doherty, 24, an investment specialist from Phoenixville, who has played the trumpet since he was 9. "It's a great opportunity to play for a group as well-known and as good" as the Black Pearl," he said.

Doherty agrees with Johnson's belief that involving the community in concerts will help expand the core audience for classical music and dispel the reputation that it's an elitist form of music.

"For the orchestra to have players like us hypes the idea that you don't have to be a specific kind of person to like classical music," he said.

Michael Langston, 42, an amateur flutist from Audubon, Pa., who has played for 33 years, said more arts organizations should have such outreach programs. "The area has such a wealth of talent and it's untapped," he said.

Slawson said the Dell was working on a proposal to become the Black Pearl's permanent summer home. But she added that it will never abandon its commitment to urban sounds - much to the relief of season-ticket holder Morris Burton.

"I love the fact that it's geared to urban music, R&B, jazz, and gospel," said Burton, 74, who has been attending Dell shows every year since 1976. "I would try always to be the first or second one in line when tickets went on sale for the season."

The renovations have renewed his faith in the Dell, Burton said. "The lighting and sound system were subpar and the restrooms antiquated," he said. "Now it has become one of the most outstanding facilities in Philadelphia."

Jazz and R&B singer-songwriter Will Downing, who has performed at the Dell for 18 years, concurred.

"It was just not maintained," said Downing, who will perform July 10 with the O'Jays. "But it is beautiful now. I mean, it's a venue that I look forward to playing. . . . And the audience response, it's nothing but elation."


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