by Jim Harris
The Philadelphia Orchestra is much in the news of late, but how many of you have ever heard of the Chestnut Hill Orchestra? They’ve been making music for almost 50 years, and they’d like you to know that they are still open for business.
The Chestnut Hill Orchestra (CHO) was founded in 1962, by Albert B. Conkey, who headed the music department at Chestnut Hill Academy (CHA) from 1940 to 1978. He wanted to provide an opportunity for the students at his school to play classical repertoire with more advanced players in a full orchestra setting.
The orchestra rehearsed and gave concerts at “The Rec,” the facility on Valley Green Road, which once served as a stable for the Wissahickon Inn. In 1978 it was renamed the Albert B. Conkey Center for the Performing Arts.
Mr. Conkey also founded the now defunct Chestnut Hill Community Chorus. He retired in 1978 and died in 2000. In addition to his considerable skills as pianist and conductor, he was also an excellent composer. At a Bicentennial concert in 1976, the CHO played a Conkey composition, “From the Writings of Ben Franklin.” And just this past April, the CHA-Springside Concert Choir performed a Conkey piece, arranged by Springside Music Director, Dr. Ellen Fishman Johnson.
After Mr. Conkey retired, CHA physics teacher Frank Thomson took over the podium in 1978 and ‘79. CHA music teacher Chris Simmons then conducted until 1986.
Martin Knoblauch succeeded Chris Simmons, and has been conducting the CHO continuously now for 25 years. Knoblauch, who is a practicing attorney as well as a professional musician, is the music director at Charity BVM Church in Northeast Philadelphia.
According to Knoblauch, the CHO left the Conkey Center, which was “cavernous and cold, even with the heat on,” for a warmer, better-lit rehearsal space at Chestnut Hill College in 1991. They rehearsed and gave concerts in the college auditorium.
“We were sort of their orchestra in residence,” he said. “Students got credits for playing and singing with us. After about 10 years, though, the college decided they wanted to have their own orchestra, so we moved to our present rehearsal location, St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church in Springfield, Delaware County, in 2000.” The orchestra plays from September to June. They do two or three concerts a year. All weekly rehearsals are in preparation for their concerts.
“We give concerts in Glenside, Northeast Philadelphia, and sometimes in Mt. Airy,” said Knoblauch. “We don’t play much in Chestnut Hill anymore. It was hard getting folks there to attend. They’re used to hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra. It’s easier for a community orchestra like us to find audiences in the musical hinterlands.”
Features of recent past seasons include complete performances of operas including “Don Giovanni,” “The Barber of Seville” and “Così Fan Tutte.” They’ve played all nine Beethoven symphonies. They also perform the Messiah every other year at Christmas time and have played the Bach “Christmas Oratorio,” Haydn’s “Creation” and Mendelssohn’s “Elija.”
According to Martin, “Our players today are, on the whole, older. Kids like to play with other kids and tend to go for the youth orchestras. In addition to our core group of around 25 musicians, I bring in musician friends for our concerts. It’s a nice opportunity for folks to play together. We are always looking for new players, especially strings. We could also use a clarinet, flute or oboe player.”
David Kuehn, 75, is the longest-serving member of the CHO. He joined in 1967. David, who taught physics and chemistry at Penn Charter, has been retired for eight years and happily spends his time these days playing viola and piano and singing in the choir at Germantown’s First Presbyterian Church. His East Mt. Airy home is filled with stacks of sheet music. He also has a collection of programs from old CHO concerts and an amazing memory for details about the orchestra.
Following are just some of the notable CHO alumni with whom he recalls playing over the past 45 years:
•Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia has been the English horn player for The Philadelphia Orchestra since 1995.
•Harold Smoliar is Principal English Horn player for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
•Former CHO concertmistress Mary Ann Ballard joined the Baltimore consort, a musical ensemble that performs a wide variety of early music.
•Multi-Emmy-award-winning sound editor Joe Melody was also once the CHO concertmaster.
•Richard Brodhead, who composed music for the CHO in 1964, when he was a senior at CHA, is now Associate Professor of Music Studies at Temple University.
•French horn player Martin Webster went on to join The Philadelphia Brass.
•Piano soloist Horatio Miller is Assistant Professor of Music at Community College of Philadelphia.
•Cellist David Szepessy is an Adjunct Instructor of Music at The College of New Jersey.
Kuehn says that the late 1960s and early ‘70s were the glory years. “In 1968, we did ‘Carmina Burana’ with participants from five private schools in the area. In 1975 we did a piece for trumpet and strings by the world-famous contemporary composer Vincent Persichetti (who lived in Roxborough). Back then, there were sometimes as many as 60 players in the group. The parts were always covered. Today, we only have about 25 regular members, and we don’t get students anymore. These days, we have to tailor the music to the instrumental forces at hand.” Kuehn, who has had eye problems, said he plans to keep on playing in the orchestra “as long as I can see.”
At 61, conductor Knoblauch says he too is “starting to slow down a bit,” but he still has a wish list that includes conducting all of Hayden’s symphonies, Bach’s cantatas and Handel’s oratorios.
Their next concert is Sunday June 5, 7 p.m., at St. Madeleine Sophie Church, 6445 Green St. in Mt. Airy, next to the Upsal Train Station. (Parking lot in rear.) The program includes the Haydn Symphony number 93, Beethoven’s First Symphony and a guest soloist, soprano Jacqueline Smith, who will perform Mozart’s aria, “Non temer amato bene.” Admission is free. (Donation at door.) The concert will also be streamed live on the internet via North East Web Radio at gophilaradio.com
Concerning the problems of the Philadelphia Orchestra and classical music in general, Maestro Knoblauch had these thoughts:
“The old orchestra fans are literally dying off. We’re fighting for the cultural hearts, minds, and pocketbooks of a new generation. It’s a whole new world. Now you can listen and watch live performances online, but if you’re doing art as industry, you have to cope with competition. It’s the American way. You have to compete for limited discretionary income.
“I believe there’s still an audience for ‘great’ music (he prefers that term to ‘classical’), but we have to build that audience. If it means scaling back, that’s what businesses will have to do. At CHO, we finance ourselves. We operate on donations, and we have very small expenses. We’re grateful to the Local for running this story about us. It’s nice to know that someone on the Hill is still interested in our activities.”
On a personal note, this writer played with the orchestra during the 1970s and ‘80s. It was good fun, great camaraderie and a fascinating way to experience the classics. The orchestra celebrates its 50th anniversary next year. I’m seriously considering dusting off my cello and joining up in the fall. Anyone else game?
You can reach Martin Knoblauch at 215-676-3245 or Gophilamusic@aol.com