This weekend, classical music will return to the Dell Music Center for the first time in four decades.
The Dell Music Center – formerly the Robin Hood Dell – had been the regular summer home of the Philadelphia Orchestra. When the Fabulous Philadelphians moved to the Mann Center in 1976 (then called Robin Hood Dell West), the Dell became a venue for mostly R&B and soul acts.
For almost 40 years, fans of classical music had no reason to go to the Dell.
Neither did the musicians. A few days before their weekend gig, the musicians with the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra needed directions to the city’s fourth-largest venue.
“I want to make sure people know how to get to the Dell,” conductor and founder Jeri Lynne Johnson announced to her musicians from the podium during rehearsal. “If you’ve never been, it can be a difficult place to find.”
The city hopes more people discover the Dell this weekend. Located near Laurel Hill Cemetery, the nearly 6,000-capacity venue (including seats and lawn) is operated by the Department of Parks and Recreation, which wants to branch out of its usual programming.
“We are trying to ensure that we are not boxing ourselves in,” said deputy commissioner Susan Slawson. “We want to make sure we are offering every type of music people are interested in. We are not going to be known as R&B, or jazz. We want to be a world-renowned venue.”
The Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra will perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (“The Ode to Joy”) with its 60 professional musicians alongside 15 amateur musicians. The concert is part of the Black Pearl Orchestra’s Side-By-Side program, bringing lawyers, teachers, even an emergency anthrax task force manager onstage with the professionals.
“A lot of them of played at the graduate school level on their instruments, and they are still studying as adults,” said Johnson, who auditioned amateurs last fall and winter. “They are still proficient, but can’t practice all the time. It’s not their full-time job.”
Opera Philadelphia reached out to nonprofessional singers who perform semi-regularly in its choir, adding 75 voices to the “Ode to Joy,” bringing the total number of musicians on stage at the Dell to 150.
“Part of what classical music suffered from is bad PR – people don’t enjoy it or the concerts are boring,” said Johnson. “The music is truly exciting, and orchestras are starting to let the community into the orchestra, to give them hands-on access. “
This is the only classical music program programmed at the Dell this season, but Slawson hopes to someday lure the Philadelphia Orchestra back to the Dell.