Free Orchestra Concerts Go On Despite Jewish Holiday


The trains kept rumbling through SEPTA’s Elkins Park Station while the string and oboe quartets from the Philadelphia Orchestra played Beethoven, Mozart and other pieces shortly before sundown on Oct. 4.

Close to 100 people jammed inside the building for the occasion, which was one of many audience-appreciation concerts taking place throughout the day.

While there were only a handful of Jews among the participants, including violinist Phil Kates, an orchestra member for 36 years, this apparently was the orchestra’s version of tikkun olam.

There was just one potentially sour note: They were performing on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

“The orchestra’s schedule is so full that it was the only day in all of October we could count on for optimal turnout of our musicians,” Kates explained via email to the Jewish Exponent before the concert. “I regret there was just no other day.

“I did consult with other Jewish members of the orchestra, and they were in agreement for scheduling on this date rather than having to postpone into November or later.”

So the day of free concerts went on, beginning at 9:30 a.m. at City Hall, then continuing at sites in Philadelphia, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, West Chester and New Jersey.

The concerts came just two days after the end of a strike by orchestra musicians over wages that have been cut more than 17 percent in recent years.

“These programs are conceived separately from the Orchestra Association,” said Kates, an Elkins Park native, who greeted a number of familiar faces from the neighborhood before the concert got underway. “The orchestra as an entity is the Philadelphia Orchestra Association (POA), which is the business, board, management staff and volunteer committee all under that umbrella.

“Each entity has its own identity. We’re not always in agreement on things, but we all support each other when we can because we’re a family.”

So the family decided that playing on the second day of Rosh Hashanah was permissible. That included first trombone Nitzan Haroz and cellist Ohad Bar-David, both Israeli.

“It wasn’t particularly frustrating, because there is only one person in the orchestra observant to that degree,” Kates said. “Because we play a lot of Saturday-night concerts and some Friday nights, there’s nothing he can do about it.

“Only two people commented to me about the date, and one member of the orchestra said it wasn’t a concern to him. Of course, the Orthodox community would be a different story.”

Of greater concern were the recent contract negotiations, which culminated in Kates and his colleagues joining a picket line — during which his violin got a little moist from the rain. The conflict was resolved when a federal mediator stepped in and got both sides to compromise.

“We postponed our wage increase a few years ago, which resulted in a small decrease in salary,” said cellist John Koen, the chairman of the Members Committee, which headed the negotiations. “But then the bankruptcy [the POA filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2011] was the real kicker — with a 17 percent pay cut that reset us to a low tier, and we’ve never recovered from that.

“This contract [a three-year deal that will raise salaries 7 percent over the life of the contract] will not recover us. We’re at the bottom of the top eight orchestras in the country.”

Nonetheless, the musicians went out and played the free neighborhood concerts on Oct. 4.

“My dad was my first teacher,” said Kates. “He was a school principal at Morrison Elementary [in North Philadelphia] and always brought me with him to play at assemblies, then encouraged me to visit nursing homes and other places in the community.

“When you’re in a small room like this with people so close, it’s just a different vibration. You feel the energy in a different way.

“But next year we’ll be looking for dates not on the Jewish New Year.”

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