Performers flock to the polls to play for Philly voters

People salsa dancing outside

People salsa dancing as part of the Painted Bride's 'Celebrate Your Vote' campaign earlier this month. (Provided by Painted Bride)

As always, voters arriving at the entrance of their neighborhood polling places can expect to see representatives from opposing camps offering literature and ballot guides as a last-minute attempt to sway an undecided voter.

In at least one polling place, those partisan volunteers will be joined by the gentle tones of Renaissance music played on an acoustic guitar.

Luke Honer, a faculty guitar instructor with Settlement Music School, will be playing his trade at the entrance to Settlement’s Northeast branch in Torresdale, which is also a polling place. He says he selected guitar arrangements of music from the baroque period, as well as some mid-century jazz favorites, for their calming properties.

“We’re so divided now. Music is one way we can come together on something, on common ground,” he said. “Maybe it might spark up a conversation between two people who wouldn’t normally speak with each other.”

Settlement has always offered its branch buildings as polling places, typically placing its musicians in or outside the buildings to play for voters. It’s part of Settlement’s aspiration for its branches to act as community centers, not just music schools, says Director of Education Karin Orenstein.

“From a branch perspective, there’s a little anxiety always: you’re opening your branch to anyone and everyone,” said Orenstein. “That can be anxious. But the reality is the communities are phenomenal, the way they interact with the school.”

For this election, which for many represents a high water mark for political anxiety, many polling places will become ad hoc concert venues. The First United Methodist Church of Germantown, also a polling place, will perform its carillon bells for voters at noon.

Carillonneur Janet Tebbel plans to play, like Honer, music that calms political nerves.

“I think I’ll do ‘You’ve Got a Friend,’ ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters,’ ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ ‘Let There Be Peace on Earth,’ and other general songs of comfort and strength,” she said.

As this election season has been fundamentally colored by the sharply polarized voting body and the coronavirus pandemic, most get-out-the-vote campaigns have been anything but calming. Political tensions are high, and with performance venues closed due to the pandemic many artists have not had any opportunities to be in front of audiences.

Two weeks ago a national movement called “Joy to the Polls” touched down in Philadelphia, featuring DJs, dancers, and the Resistance Revival Chorus, resulting in a video of a line of early voters dancing the Cha Cha Slide that went viral on social media.

The “Joy to the Polls,” campaign by the Election Defenders, will return on Election Day, with amped-up live performances and dancers to build excitement at voting locations. The campaign has also released a series of playlists of music to vote to, lists that were personally created by figures such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Questlove, and Billie Joe Armstrong (Green Day).

Likewise, the Painted Bride had rounded up a variety show of artists to perform for voters for the third time in three weeks. On Tuesday “Celebrate Your Vote” will be at the Julia de Burgos Elementary School in North Philadelphia, featuring hip hop dancing, drummers, a spoken word poet, salsa social dancing, and – newly added – the performance painter Anthony Carlos Molden and the modern dance troupe Dance Iquail – Dance for Social Justice.

For the first time, the Philadelphia Orchestra is sending out its musicians to play for voters. A string quartet will set up inside the Kimmel Center to perform for those waiting in line at 3 p.m. Violinist Elina Kalendarova says they will play a mixture of classical and jazz arrangements, including Mozart “Haydn” quartet, and some Irving Berlin songs.

The quartet will also perform “Philly Ragtime,” a composition by Kalendarova’s father, Edward Kalendar, originally from Ukraine who moved to New York in 1994. When he discovered jazz as a boy, the music was considered unpatriotic in the Soviet Union.

“My dad was a rebellious underground jazz musician in Russia,” said Kalendarova. During the current pandemic, each member of the quartet recorded herself playing the parts of “Philly Ragtime,” which were then mixed together into a video. Election day will be the first time the quartet has played together in the same room since February.

The full Philadelphia Orchestra will be inside the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall on Election Day, recording a program that will be streamed online as part of its digital concert season. Kalendarova said she and the three other members of the quartet agreed to play in the Kimmel Center plaza, for about 45 minutes, during a break between two recording sessions.

“Music I think has certain powers on people’s psyche,” said Kalendarova. “This year has been so hard on everybody, and a little bit of a cheerful touch on such a day is probably a great idea.”

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