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The Journal Gazette

  • Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette Caleb Young conducts the Fort Wayne Philharmonic in the first “Live at Lunch” concert at Sweetwater Sound.

  • The Philharmonic brass section performs last month at Sweetwater Sound.

Monday, February 27, 2017 10:03 pm

Music comes to you

Steve Warden | The Journal Gazette

With the downstroke of his baton, Caleb Young, assistant conductor of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic orchestra, sets in motion the first movement of Beethoven’s familiar Fifth Symphony.

In the distance among the audience is a baby’s cry.

What makes these two coinciding events singular is that during the Masterworks series at the stately Embassy Theatre, parents are encouraged to remove a fussing infant from the auditorium, where even the slightest noise of unwrapping a cough drop can cause an eyebrow to arch. A crying child simply would be unacceptable.

But this wasn’t Saturday night at the Embassy. It was a Thursday afternoon at the headquarters of Sweetwater Sound, where in the far reaches of its spacious cafeteria, the Philharmonic unveiled its "Live at Lunch" concert series. The following day, the orchestra was at Citizen’s Square, downtown. The next performance is May 12 at the Allen County Courthouse.

The concept is simple: If you can’t come to the orchestra, the orchestra will come to you.

"Several years back we had something called ‘Random Acts of Music,’ " says Philharmonic general manager Jim Palermo. "It was sort of based on that pop up idea where you would see orchestras or ensembles pop up and kept playing. We did it for a while and it stopped. We’d been discussing ways to sort of reinvent that and re-energize it. So what we’re trying this year is this format where we take the full 40-piece orchestra – the chamber orchestra – and show up some place at lunch time in a public setting, free."

Signal the kettle drums in the back, maestro.

Yes, free.

"It’s designed to put the orchestra in an unusual location, although Sweetwater isn’t an unusual location," Palermo says. "We’re in the middle of a business at lunchtime. People will happen upon us. Some people will come to see us. They’ll be able to experience music on their own terms."

The trend of symphonies bringing music to the masses has been growing throughout the country. In San Francisco, the symphony orchestra performs a 10-concert "SoundBox" series within an empty warehouse that was converted to a bar. The West Michigan Symphony in Muskegon recently opened a more intimate downtown venue known as "The Block" which seats 110 people. The Kalamazoo Symphony utilizes "Music and Microbrews" performances at bars and lounges. And at Columbia University School of the Arts in New York, monthly concerts at Miller Theatre allow the audience to sit on stage with the performers for free – as are the wine and beer. 

The orchestra concerts at various locations outside the regular symphony hall are another way to reach a different group of people.

The National Education Association, in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau, announced the results of a 2012 survey titled "Survey of Public Participation of the Arts." The study reported that arts au­diences were not only progressively getting older, but attendance was shrinking. 

The attendance at Sweetwater was nearly overflowing. Mothers with children in tow searched for vacant tables within the crowded cafeteria. Lanyard-wearing employees carried their lunches on trays from the Downbeat Diner and settled in to listen. Some just ordered coffee from the Crescendo Café, only a few steps away from the orchestra.

"I think this is a lot of fun and a great experience for us and the audience," says Debora Nitka Hicks, a cellist who has been with the orchestra for roughly 25 years. "This is a lot less stuffy. This is very casual. People can come and go and enjoy their meals; chit chat if they want. It’s just a lot less formal."

It was burgers with Beethoven, salads with Shostakovich, chicken with Tchaikovsky.

"I think it’s necessary. I really do," says violinist Marcy Trentacosti, whose husband, Mike, came out of retirement to play bassoon. "I think reaching out with music to our community is making the Philharmonic accessible, and that’s important."

Seated near the middle within the cafeteria, Fort Wayne resident Mike Thoms listened to Mozart’s 40th Symphony. Although he isn’t a Sweetwater employee, he came just to listen. And since he was on the premises, he thought he’d have lunch, as well.

"I heard that this was going on, so I just came to listen," says Thoms while picking through his salad. "I can’t always get to the Embassy to hear them, and this was a good chance. But I love to listen to a live performance."

Music to Palermo’s ears.

"I think it’s a value-added proposition for us," Palermo says. "We have a great product. The orchestra plays wonderful concerts in tried-and-true locations. Events like this, I think, jogs people’s memory: ‘Oh yeah. We have a great orchestra in town.’ These are opportunities for us to reach people who aren’t necessarily coming to the concerts, or who have heard of the orchestra, but may have never heard it before and can hear a really nice hour-long concert."

Plus a little sherbet with Schubert.