Building Homes and Bridging Differences | Playbill

Classical Music Features Building Homes and Bridging Differences
Philadelphia Orchestra musicians give back to their community in a variety of ways.

Robert Cafaro remembers the headline in the New York Daily News that read: "FORD TO CITY: 'DROP DEAD.'" The year was 1975, and New York City, having appealed to the federal government for assistance to keep it out of bankruptcy, was turned down by President Gerald Ford, then campaigning for a second term. Ford's opponent, Jimmy Carter, felt differently. He promised help to New York, and he followed through on that promise when elected president.

Cafaro, a native New Yorker, never forgot that. And when, after Carter's term was up, the former president maintained his dedication to the city by making a first of many working trips to New York with Habitat for Humanity, Cafaro knew that his own road pointed in precisely that direction.

"I saw footage of Carter on his hands and knees, building housing for people in need," Cafaro remembers. "He had kept his promise, and from that day I wanted to follow in his footsteps."

A cellist with The Philadelphia Orchestra since 1985, Cafaro, who holds the Volunteer Committee's chair, came up with the idea of Habitat Day when the Orchestra started its program of community outreach four years ago. He organized the first event in June 2004, recruiting musicians and administrative staff members to take on such jobs as painting, demolition, landscaping, and putting in drywall in Camden, New Jersey, where residents' needs are often ignored and crime is prevalent.

Habitat Day was "a big hit," Cafaro says, and the program has grown since. There are now two such events per season, and Cafaro has added Orchestra volunteers to the mix, as well as Associate Conductor Rossan Milanov. Usually 10 or 12 members of the Orchestra family take part.

Cafaro's commitment to others goes further back than the Habitat connection. More than seven years ago he suddenly fell ill with a mysterious neurological condition that resulted in severe vision loss and near immobility of his hands. Remarkably, the symptoms abated and disappeared with time, perhaps due in some measure to his Herculean efforts to regain his health through arduous bike rides and long hours practicing at the cello that went on until 2 or 3 a.m. In all Cafaro missed only six weeks at the Orchestra.

The experience left him with even more determination to give back. Since then, he has played often at nursing homes, schools, and retirement communities. Whether he performs show tunes or Bach unaccompanied cello sonatas, his audiences respond with great enthusiasm.

"Every minute of life is a gift," says Cafaro, "and it's a privilege to be able to assist those in need."

Philip Kates has another way of giving back. An Orchestra member since 1980, he is also occasionally guest concertmaster with Peter Nero and the Philly Pops and the Orchestra Society of Philadelphia.

Despite this busy schedule, Kates finds the time to take his music out of the concert hall into the community. Each April he plays at a ceremony of remembrance for the six million victims of the Holocaust, a ceremony which is held at the Philadelphia Holocaust Memorial at 17th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Kates provides background music as wreaths are laid at the base of the monument and during a candlelighting service. Typically he chooses eastern European melodies, including folk songs; on one occasion he played music by the Swiss-born Jewish composer Ernest Bloch, and on another he composed his own music for the event.

Among the memorable speakers at the Holocaust memorial have been Christoph Eschenbach, who addressed the audience during his first season as music director of the Orchestra. Eschenbach's personal World War II saga was a particularly harrowing one, ending in the deaths of his father and grandmother while he was a young child (his mother died in childbirth).

Violinist Kates also has played in soup kitchens, hospices, and community centers for more than 20 years and travels with members of his own string quartet, Liebesfreud ("Love's Joy"), to nursing homes during the Christmas season. Kates and Liebesfreud ( also offer an annual "Beethoven's Birthday Concert" (this year's is on December 15) to benefit Wintershelter, a Trinity Center for Urban Life charity, which accommodates and feeds homeless men. In recent years Kates has also been playing on Thanksgiving at St. John's Hospice on Race Street. The tradition continues with Kates's cellist daughter, who sometimes joins the quartet. The ensemble recently initiated a series of concerts on the last Friday of each month, free of charge to attendees, at the Philadelphia Ethical Society and in Bryn Mawr.

As an educator, Kates has reached beyond the Philadelphia region, presenting programs to children in schools throughout the United States and in conjunction with Philadelphia Orchestra tours to Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, England, Wales, Poland, Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

Music, it is often said, is an international language. Few are as intimately aware of this as the Israeli-born Philadelphia Orchestra cellist Ohad ("Udi") Bar-David, who is well known as a soloist with leading orchestras in his native country. Always attracted to people and music of different cultures, Bar-David some years ago arranged an African American/Jewish collaboration with his friend Diane Munroe, a versatile classical and jazz musician with a gift for improvisation. In their first performance, spirituals and Hasidic songs were performed at a Baptist church in Philadelphia. The two musicians found so many communalities in the poetry and music of the two cultures that they began to expand performances with additional artists, including Charlotte Blake Alston, the Philadelphia-based storyteller/singer well known to audiences at The Philadelphia Orchestra's education concerts.

"Eventually," says Bar-David, "I went back to my old dream of bringing together Arabs and Jews in the Middle East." He contacted Simon Shaheen, a highly regarded Palestinian violin and oud player (the oud is a short-necked plucked lute) with whom he played in a Tel Aviv student orchestra. The two began to present joint programs in the U.S. Soon the work of artisans, as well as poetry, film, and even ethnic foods, were added to the mix, and occasional benefit performances were directed to worthy causes.

Three years ago this large effort was formalized through the creation of Intercultural Journeys (, a not-for-profit organization whose stated goal is "to promote understanding among people of diverse cultures through dialogue and the presentation of world-class performances in music, poetry, and other art forms." It is Bar-David's conviction that once an atmosphere of togetherness is achieved through the arts, constructive dialogue will follow in more volatile areas where typically misunderstanding and distrust prevail. Intercultural Journeys has a small Board of Directors, among whom are Carole Haas Gravagno and Sheldon Thompson, both key members of the Orchestra family.

Bar-David's role as music director is to put together a reactive and cohesive performance, whether the venue is a TV studio or a university. Recently a New York performance featured an Arab violinist and drummer, a Jewish klezmer clarinet player, an Indian dancer, and an African American singer. Often the musicians improvise, separately and together, lending a tone of freshness and excitement to the programs. "It's a real fusion — hopefully without confusion!" says Bar-David.

At the moment he is completing a recording project with the Native American flute player Carlos Nakai. This coming February, Intercultural Journeys will have a new collaborative effort with an old friend, The Philadelphia Orchestra, in a series of Student Concerts.

Attending Philadelphia Orchestra concerts provides audiences with little clue to the busy lives these musicians lead apart from their intense rehearsal and performance schedules at Verizon Hall. Cafaro, Kates, and Bar-David are among many others in the Orchestra who spend a great number of hours giving back to the local community and the larger world.

Diana Burgwyn is a critic for Opera Now in London. She also writes program notes for various musical organizations in Philadelphia and is one of the authors of The Philadelphia Orchestra_ã_s centennial history.

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