A Century Old and Going Strong

Classic Arts Features   A Century Old and Going Strong
The volunteer committees for The Philadelphia Orchestra celebrate their centennial.

In 1904 The Philadelphia Orchestra, at four years of age, was a critical success, a pride of the city‹and $17,000 in the red. The guarantors who had supported it from its inception weren't about to put in any more money. The Orchestra, they decided, would have to close.

No way, responded a group of 20 determined women, who were associated with the Orchestra either as Board members or as wives of Board members. If the men wouldn't save the Orchestra, they would. And they did. They marched along Broad Street with signs saying "Save Our Orchestra." They initiated a public relations campaign before PR existed. Within a month they'd raised $10,000 and sold $5,000 worth of subscriptions for the next season. So impressed were the guarantors that they resumed their support.

Thus was born the Women's Committee of The Philadelphia Orchestra. Their guiding light and president, serving for a full 42 years, was Frances Anne Wister, a member of an illustrious Philadelphia family. Elegantly turned out and bejeweled, she looks out from an old photo with flowers sprouting from her hat and a corsage on her proper black dress.

Over the years the membership, activities, and influence of the Women's Committee, presently known as the Volunteer Committees, grew exponentially. The original committee became 12 committees, spread throughout the City of Philadelphia and its suburbs, as well as in New Jersey and Delaware. The initial $10,000 gift expanded to the present sum of $1.4 million annually. What was a 20-person membership at the outset is now 650. At the venerable but vital age of 100, the Volunteer Committees for The Philadelphia Orchestra are crucial to the Orchestra's present and future existence and stature.

They raise funds through such functions as an annual Golf Classic. They present the Opening Night Gala, sponsor concerts, provide financial support to encourage young artists, raise funds to purchase tickets for students, establish funds for solo performances by Orchestra members, host the annual Philadelphia Orchestra Albert M. Greenfield Student Competition, and underwrite commissions of new works. Individual committees also engage in programs and activities of their own in support of the Orchestra, such as Friday afternoon lecture-luncheons, morning chamber concerts, and fashion shows. Facilitating all of these and many more efforts is a staff hired by The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.

So integral a part of the Orchestra are its Volunteer Committees that they were officially honored at the Opening Night concert of the 2003-2004 season with the Philadelphia Orchestra Award, commemorating a century of dedicated service. Orchestra President Joseph H. Kluger salutes their efforts: "The Volunteer Committees have played a pivotal role throughout the Orchestra's history. Their contributions‹of time and talent, as well as financial support‹have been instrumental in so many ways in helping the Orchestra achieve success. On their 100th birthday, I extend sincere appreciation for their unwavering support and tireless efforts on behalf of the Orchestra."

The Volunteer Committees have also been given two national awards by the American Symphony Orchestra League for its Perfect Harmony event in 2002: a Gold Book Award for Best Fund-raiser and one for the Best First-Time Fund-raising Event.

In years past it was common to think of volunteers as "ladies who lunch" or who "do teas." Vestiges of this perception are occasionally voiced even today. But the reality‹at least at The Philadelphia Orchestra‹is quite different, for membership responsibilities often constitute an unpaid, full-time (indeed, often overtime) job. Many among the members also maintain busy careers as well as an active home life. Dee F. Page, for example, who was elected Volunteer Committees president in June 2003, is vice president of Kravco, a retail properties management company. Page is quick to respond when anyone even hints of the organization as being amateur in nature. "Any organization that raises and turns over $1.4 million annually is a business," she says.

Among the many efforts of the Volunteer Committees, Page emphasizes education, those projects that help create audiences of the future. In the 2002-2003 season, she says, through its educational activities the Volunteers brought in 1,833 students from 28 schools to hear the Orchestra. This was achieved by using the proceeds from their Annual Golf Classic. A docent program made 121 presentations at 61 schools, introducing some 5,400 students to the music they would hear at the Kimmel Center.

Connie Madara, chair of the Education Committee, is particularly proud of the docent program. "There are presently 38 docents, and we are always looking for more," she says. "We have pages and pages of schools that want to participate." Madera says the docents go out in all weather and to out-of-the-way locations‹sometimes not in the best of circumstances. She remembers one occasion when a school's electric transformer went out and there was no power or heat. Cancel? Never. All 148 fifth-graders piled into the cafeteria with hastily provided peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and while they sat in the dark the janitor ran out to get batteries for the docents' CD player.

In 2001 a new committee was formed called the 21st Century Society. This group of about 150 young men and women, aged 25 to 40, has the goal of making classical music accessible to others of their generation. Chairperson Jan Shaeffer says that she and her fellow members, having been exposed to many different kinds of music while growing up, are in a good position to show their peers how accessible and exciting orchestral music can be. "Our responsibility is to build the new base, the new audience, to bring in people who weren't brought up with classical music," she says. Schaffer cites an upcoming meet-and-greet event at a restaurant, which will be attended by Music Director Christoph Eschenbach.

One might consider Volunteer Committees membership as a very altruistic venture on the part of already busy people‹and indeed it is. Dee Page, for instance, believes strongly that "it is important for people to give back to their communities." But the rewards are great. Ask Polly Newbold, longtime Volunteer Committees member and president from 1982 to 1985, why she has maintained such devotion. "What's kept me working for the Orchestra is loving their music all through the years," she responds. "My grandfather took me to the Children's Concerts in the 1940s, and that started it. I guess I'm a thwarted musician and groupie! Also, getting to know the musicians has been very special‹they are such a fantastic group of artists." Adds Susan Gould, a former president of the Volunteer Committees, "There is a sense of privilege and pride in being associated with this orchestra."

It would seem that no stone has been left unturned in the activities of the Volunteer Committees. Not so. Page has many plans, including gaining new members with strong leadership and administrative abilities‹men as well as women. "In order to preserve and protect our Orchestra for future generations, we need people to jump in and make a commitment to secure its future," she says. "We need to find creative new ways to embrace and educate all people into our world of music." One of those ways might be to develop joint projects with organizations that are devoted to the fine arts or medicine.

The Volunteer Committees for The Philadelphia Orchestra is the oldest permanent organization of its kind in the world, and it has since become a model for countless others. Without this kind of support, performing arts organizations simply could not exist in today's economic climate. The dozen ladies who marched on Broad Street a century ago had no idea they were setting a precedent. They simply wanted to assure the future of their beloved Orchestra. Their successors today continue to carry out the same goal with similar passion and determination.

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