How a hidden Center City block became a pop-up concert hall

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Philadelphia musicians playing music on a narrow rowhouse block

An octet of strings, woodwinds, and a French horn perform on Iseminger Street Tuesday evening. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The 400 block of Iseminger Street is too narrow for a wide car, but that isn’t stopping pop-up orchestra performances. 

The tiny stretch of street wedged in Washington Square West’s warren of alleyways is compact and somewhat hidden. The mature tree canopies give it the feel of a secret garden where neighbors can mingle. Like on many other Philly blocks, the pandemic has pulled neighbors together — in a distanced way, of course. 

 “Everyone is starved for companionship, so you create your own environment for it,” said resident Miles Davis, who’s lived on the block for more than three decades. “We have a Saturday happy hour where the neighbors – we distance on our stoops – come out for a chance to talk and gossip and be together and have a drink.”

Iseminger Street resident and professional bassist Miles Davis performs for his neighbors on his block in Center City. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Elsewhere in Philly, neighbors have converged to cheer first responders and sanitation workers. They’ve drawn rainbows for children’s scavenger hunts and, like the neighbors of Iseminger, enjoyed a drink on the stoop. But the Washington Square West block may be the first Philly street to claim the title of remote orchestra hall.

Davis works as a professional bassist and plays with The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and Opera Philadelphia, among other ensembles. Usually, he spends the summer in New Mexico while he plays for the Santa Fe Opera. But with all gigs off since March, he’s been home — and antsy to play. 

“So, one day I just brought my bass out and started playing,” he said.

Professional musicians perform Schubert’s octet on Iseminger Street Tuesday evening. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Davis played on his front step. The acoustics of the narrow, brick alley were not bad. He told his colleague Luigi Mazzocchi, a violinist, to check out his block. Earlier this summer, Mazzocchi had organized an ad hoc group of out-of-work musicians to gather in the parking lot of the German Society on Spring Garden Street to play some chamber music outdoors. But that lot is adjacent to a major traffic artery, which competed with the music. 

Davis and Mazzocchi rallied an octet of strings, woodwinds, and a French horn to Iseminger Street on Tuesday. They arranged themselves, at a safe distance, on folding chairs in the middle of the street. There was no conductor. Davis assumed the leadership role, mostly because he’s tall, has to stand up to play bass, and this is his block.

Professional musicians perform Schubert’s octet on Iseminger Street Tuesday evening. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Davis chose Schubert’s octet,” because it has a bass in it, basically,” he said with a chortle. The members of this ad hoc ensemble knew the piece, but had never before played it together. There were no rehearsals.

About 30 neighbors and friends of neighbors sat on stoops and opened lawn chairs as the ensemble started playing. By the time it got to the fourth movement the crowd had swelled to about 50 people as more friends showed up. Strangers who heard music while walking on Pine Street turned the corner to see what was up.

Davis said the performance felt like a much-needed escape from pandemic life for the musicians. 

An octet of strings, woodwinds, and a French horn perform on Iseminger Street Tuesday evening. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“It was not a performance. It was for us to play together again. That’s our life,” he said. “It was like music fell off a cliff in the middle of March. Just to be able to do this was spectacular.”

The six movements of Schubert’s Octet take about an hour to play. When the ensemble reached the end, it received enthusiastic applause from the block, but then started from the beginning again, repeating the first movement. Why? Because they felt like it and the performance was happening on a city street. No one was waiting to clean a concert hall or turn off the sound system.

Professional musicians perform Schubert’s octet on Iseminger Street Tuesday evening. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The sun had set, the music stands were illuminated by porch lights. The bassoonist quipped it was like playing tennis at dusk and watching the ball slowly fade from sight. Listeners started to peel off at that point, picking up their empty glasses and waving goodbye to friends and neighbors. Eventually, the players stopped, stood up, cased their instruments and started chatting with each other into the darkening evening.

Davis would like to do it again, albeit in a “spontaneous” kind of way. 

“Maybe this is what performing is going to look like for a while,” said Davis. “Who knows where we’re going to be able to get back into a concert hall. Maybe it will be spontaneous events like this, outside, where people make things happen.”

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