Philadelphia Orchestra premieres new music for a 9-year-old’s fashion show

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Michael Gardner and his daughter, Ava, at the Fabric Workshop

Michael Gardner and his daughter, Ava, at the Fabric Workshop, where he will team up with the Philadelphia Orchestra for a Father's Day concert and fashion show, "Daddy Dressed Me." (Jeff Fusco/Philadelphia Orchestra)

Michael Gardner has taught his 9-year-old Ava daughter to do daily affirmations. Every morning before school she hypes herself up with positive words.

It started a couple years ago when Ava was having some problems with teasing from other kids.

“We would get in the car, no music would be on, and she would start into: ‘I’m beautiful. I’m amazing. I’m smart. I’m going to get my work done today,” said Gardner. “Sometimes she says, ‘It doesn’t matter what anyone says about me. I know who I am.’”

That morning routine continued during the coronavirus pandemic, when Ava’s school was entirely remote. Her own encouraging words would be delivered in a mirror at home before virtual class.

“We need more of that in the world,” said Daniel Matsukawa, principal bassoonist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. “I mean, nothing against parents who decide to be more disciplinary and strict, but it’s just so sweet and loving and kind to offer those affirmations, especially to your own children.”

Those affirmations have combined with fashion and music for a unique tribute to fathers and daughters, in advance of Father’s Day.

Michael and Ava are the father-daughter team behind Daddy Dressed Me, a clothing design project that began in 2014 to make matching outfits just for themselves. It was a way for Michael, a self-taught sewer, to use crafting as a way to bond with his daughter.

During the pandemic it took off, gaining national attention. At the same time the Philadelphia Orchestra, unable to perform for audiences, had launched its program Our City, Your Orchestra, wherein small ensembles of musicians would play concerts at significant locations around the city, often highlighting Black-owned businesses.

Several months ago Michael got a call from the orchestra asking if Ava would be able to design her own pattern at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, if Michael would sew it into an outfit, and then members of the orchestra would perform as Ava modeled it.

“I was honored and kind of shocked. I’m born and raised here in Philadelphia, so to do something with the orchestra was pretty spectacular,” said Michael, who is not a regular at orchestra concerts. “I’ve been, like, maybe once. For me, it’s what they represent for the city.”

To get the project started, Michael and Ava went one way, and Matsukawa went another.

The Gardners went to the Fabric Workshop and Museum to create the fabric. Ava started by drawing out the words she uses in her daily affirmations.

“Then she added some hearts and squiggly lines and shapes,” said Micahel. “Her favorite colors right now are blues and purples and pinks. So she infused those colors into the design.”

The Fabric Workshop printed Ava’s pattern onto fabric, from which Michael designed a dress, adding it to two other outfits he made for Ava to model.

“Ava loves to be girly and cute, but she also is about comfort. Everything I make, I’m always trying to keep that in mind,” he said. “But my goal was to show off as much of the fabric as possible, because it’s her affirmations.”

Matsukawa called Australia to ask composer Elizabeth Younan, a recent graduate of Curtis Institute of Music, to write an original work for the fashion show. Younan delivered “Ava’s Groove,” written for bassoon, percussion, horn, trumpet, and double bass.

Harold Robinson, Don Liuzzi, Daniel Matsukawa, Jeffrey Curnow, and Jennifer Montone, rehearse
Members of the Philadelphia Orchestra (from left) Harold Robinson, Don Liuzzi, Daniel Matsukawa, Jeffrey Curnow, and Jennifer Montone, rehearse for a Father’s Day concert and fashion show at the Fabric Workshop, featuring the designs of Michael Gardner. (Jeff Fusco/Philadelphia Orchestra)

That quintet is made up of orchestra musicians who are also fathers of daughters. Except for the horn player.

“I thought it was too male-dominant, so we put in Jen Montone, our principal horn,” said Matsukawa, himself the father of two teenage daughters. “Because at the end of the day, she’s a daughter of a dad.”

To fill out the program with more material, Matsukawa began searching for music that would be appropriate for a fashion show, and that he could arrange for the unusual ensemble of instruments.

“At one point we were thinking maybe we should do some K-Pop arrangements. We were going to do Blackpink,” he said. “But it turns out it’s really, really difficult to get the copyrights and to get permission. We had to abandon that idea.”

Instead, he chose “Habanera” from the opera Carmen, and the theme of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater (“Rondeau” by Jean Joseph Mouret).

“But the centerpiece is the world premiere of ‘Ava’s Groove,’ by this composer, Elizabeth,” said Matsukawa. “I’m always so excited when we can present brand new works from composers.”

The concert and fashion show took place in the gallery of the Fabric Workshop and Museum, currently set up to resemble a laundromat for an installation of work by artist Jonathan Lyndon Chase. It was filmed as a concert documentary video and released for free on the orchestra’s website.

Dressed in her own design, Ava was ready to walk out to music to show off her dress. The band was playing and the cameraman was following her.

Ava froze.

“She was really nervous. She actually had a cry right before,” said Michael. “I gave her a pep talk. The musicians were playing, so she got a feel for the music. She calmed down.”

Daniel Matsukawa, on bassoon, and Harold Robinson, on bass, rehearse
Philadelphia Orchestra musicians Daniel Matsukawa, on bassoon, and Harold Robinson, on bass, rehearse for a Father’s Day concert at the Fabric Workshop. (Jeff Fusco/Philadelphia Orchestra)

“Each time she kind of gained more confidence and felt better,” he continued. “This was the first time she was put in the spotlight by herself. Normally, we’re doing things together. She never had the opportunity to walk by herself and be filmed.”

The ensemble saw none of that anxiety.

“I would never have known that. I did not notice it,” said Matsukawa. “This shows the special relationship that those two have. He obviously reassured her as her dad. That’s what dads do. I would never have even known that she was even a tiny ounce nervous.”

Matsukawa noticed Ava seemed to really come to life with Carmen.

“‘Habanera’ is the perfect tempo. She has this awesome, natural swagger to her,” he said. “She just shines. She’s so radiant.”

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