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Prometheus - Philadelphia's new self-conducted chamber orchestra

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Curiosity and a personal invitation drew me just north of Temple University to the Church of the Advocate on the evening of November 22nd. Prometheus is a brand new chamber orchestra with a mission to bring classical music to the community via their residency at the Advocate. Their outreach action takes place in several forms: Open rehearsals, workshops, active engagement with area students, and possibly music education in the future. The decision to set their base of operations at 18th and Diamond demonstrates their mission to bring classical music to communities where exposure to live performance is scarce.

Another intriguing quality of Prometheus is that it is a self-conducted orchestra. As unusual as that might sound, in the long history of classical music, the dedicated role of conductor is actually relatively new. Historically, baroque ensembles performed without a conductor and with most of the musicians standing. Prometheus used the same configuration but with a twist. Players in various sections moved around in between pieces as principal players and the "rank and file" switched places. The constant change of leadership presents exciting possibilities and significant challenges.

Bass player, Jerrell Jackson, described the experience of this cooperative approach: "Performing in a self-conducted group is very thrilling! There are moments when the group falls into a "hive-mindset," spontaneously communicating and implementing a musical idea on the spot - not unlike that of a flock of birds or a school of fish. The absence of a single leader also increases the artistic responsibility for all participants. I am as much responsible for artistic execution as my stand partner, as is everyone else in the orchestra. Additionally, the absence of a conductor liberates the audience from staring at someone who is showing them how to feel about their concert experience. Instead, they are free to construct their own musical narrative."

Such an approach could be very unsettling, but as I spotted familiar faces in the ensemble, I realized that this set of highly creative musicians would not be rattled by such a level of uncertainty. I had previously heard a number of them perform in Classical Revolution jam sessions and others stretched even further as members of a an improvisation ensemble called Murmuration. The youthful Prometheus was comprised mostly of teaching artists and professional free lance musicians. As I turned my attention to the audience, I noticed that it, too, was more youthful than one would expect for a classical concert and casual dress prevailed.

The ensemble was in the rear portion of the immense cathedral and chairs were setup to wrap partially around the group. This gave a surprisingly intimate feel to such a large space. Another touch that made the surroundings feel more like home were the two area rugs under part of the ensemble. The purpose of the rugs, however, was acoustics. Cathedrals are lively spaces and this was no exception. I was seated on the side and I rather enjoyed the swirling sounds, with one exception. Members of Prometheus spoke between the pieces and it was very hard to understand them. This was the premier event for the group and it will probably take a bit of experimentation to find the best configuration for that space. The musicians performed admirably and the cohesion of the ensemble will strengthen as they become both more familiar with each other and with the structure of the group.

The concert was offered as a free will donation event. This flexibility in expense for members of the audience is especially important given the ensemble's goal to reach out to the community. The short program was also designed to provide plenty of time for presentations between pieces and time to socialize with musicians after. In fact, the musicians even wore name tags during the friendly reception.

Prometheus is surely striking out in a new direction and it will be interesting to see where it leads. The creative possibilities for the musicians is exciting, but perhaps even more compelling, is the opportunity for members of the community to engage in a new experience and build connections along the way.

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