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No Conductor, No Management, No Problem

The Prometheus Chamber Orchestra performs without a conductor.

Does Philadelphia need another orchestra? Well, it now has the 18-member Prometheus Chamber Orchestra, born out of sheer determination by recent Temple University graduates and finishing up its second season with a go-where-it's-needed philosophy. As the Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns reports, that includes periodic visits to a North Philadelphia soup kitchen.

David Patrick Stearns: Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings is performed by many people in many places. But the “who” and the “where” makes a world of difference: The Church of the Advocate at 18th and Diamond streets has hosted John Coltrane and the Philadelphia Virtuosi, but now has The Prometheus Chamber Orchestra in residence, playing free concerts with only a few thousand bucks in the bank and, significantly, no conductor.

Jerrell Jackson: When you take the conductor out of the equation you take the safety net away. It makes it more risky and challenging but more exciting for the audience because they don't know what to expect ... when there's not a conductor in front of them … telling you how to feel how to react...

Yet bassist Jerrell Jackson, who co-founded Prometheus with Vena Johnson, admits that systems are necessary to keep so many high spirited players in line. Each concert has an appointed curator. Opinions are encouraged, though violinist Russell Kotcher admits he's guilty of voicing his too often.

Russell Kotcher: I think I said like five things, but there is a flexibility there.

Meanwhile, violist Veronica Jurkiewicz sometimes sits apart from the orchestra during rehearsals, score in hand, acting as a sounding board.

Veronica Jurkiewicz: I think it's one of the key strategies for a conductor-less group...to have a member with ears outside the group and to take turns with that.

DPS: The venue is fascinating. The beautiful, but moldering, French gothic Church of the Advocate, opened in 1887. It’s also a community center in a depressed area of North Philadelphia that needs all the community it can get. Social media gets the word out, but so do low-tech postcards. Special fundraising has to happen for the towering sanctuary to be heated in the winter, but the reward is marvelous acoustics enhanced by a ceiling net that keeps plaster from falling on concertgoers, who, by the way, might not normally hear this music. Violinist Angela Sulzer explains the rewards.

Angela Sulzer: Every time I come here...we have a meeting, we have a concert I get this sense from everybody that we're all here for a common purpose and we endure. We stick through this because there's a big goal that we want to reach together.