• Wednesday , 21 February 2018

Tune Into the Sounds of the Season at Fairmount Park’s Historic Houses

“Christmas Eve was a night of song that wrapped itself about you like a shawl. But it warmed more than your body. It warmed your heart … filled it, too, with melody that would last forever.” – Bess Streeter Aldrich

Story, photos by Sharon Kozden

They came. They toured. They listened. On December 2, in what was part of a 16-day seasonal presentation called A Very Philly Christmas, Fairmount Park’s Historic Houses came alive with the sounds of music during The Sounds of the Season. Philadelphia was well represented by its diverse musical culture and community, which included Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, Choral Arts Philadelphia, Clef Club of Jazz, Opera Philadelphia and PlayOnPhilly.

The houses were festooned to seasonal perfection with Christmas trees at every turn, decorated in all manner of color and style combinations. Some were towering; others petite–all demanded gaze-worthy attention. The stunning décor in each house wasn’t limited to trees. Far from it. I may be going on a hyperbolic limb here, however, those responsible for the creative displays expressed talent with a palpable degree of loving care the likes of which I don’t often see.

Get me started on the music – please! The instrument variety alone was an eclectic, note-worthy mix. To wit: trumpet, trombone, French horn, pianoforte, clarinet, flute, oboe, bassoon … shall I go on, or are you getting the idea that between the houses at their finest and the plethora of musical options, Fairmount Park Conservancy went all out and left nothing to chance? Because they did and didn’t.

Personally, I’m a massive fan of Handel’s Messiah. I’m actually gutted if I don’t attend at the very least three performances throughout the season (five being the ideal), and I have the double-CD on repeat in my ride. Unfortunately, and despite my extensive research there seemed precious few offerings this year. I prefer the small scale ones, typically offered in a church or a similarly intimate venue. As it happens, the excerpts held at Laurel Hill and compelling performed by Opera Philadelphia surpassed my expectations, resulting in a surcease of disappointment at having found no others to attend in 2017.

Afterward, I spoke with Veronica Chapman-Smith (soprano), who smiled and related how she noticed so many of the listeners in the audience were moving their bodies in tune with the music. The house’s original pianoforte from 1808 was employed, which only embellished the already superb rendition.

Moving to Historic Woodford Mansion for Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra’s “Bricolage: Philadelphia 1756,” Founder and Artistic Director Jeri Lynne Johnson treated the audience to a comprehensive explanation of the music. According to Johnson, “a bricolage is something constructed from a diverse range of available things.” What that meant for this particular event was a glorious and distinctive mix alternating between, for example, two negro spirituals and a corn ditty by unknown composers but with musical names so curious they beget mentioning: “Shock Along, John,” “O Brothers, Don’t Get Weary” and “Many Thousand Go.” Intermingled in bricolage fashion were classical classics by J.S. Bach and Arcangelo Corelli.

The available things around which a bricolage is created are not limited to ones musical only, rather it’s much more inclusionary. “The goal is to create an immersive experience for visitors–one where the visual stimuli afforded by the period furnishings and architecture of the mansion are reinforced by the music, and together generate a more visceral, living experience of history.” Fascinating. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Literally. The notion, however, as well as the name has  me wondering how I can apply bricolage principles and tenets to my own lifestyle, whether artistically or practically speaking.

Unfortunately, I was present for only some two to three hours, which was not nearly enough time to take in everything. The program, to its credit, was held from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., so the crowds had plenty of time to revel in and enjoy themselves at a leisurely pace. And as with “Flavors of the Season,” PHLASH was on hand to transport attendees between homes, always appreciated by those weary of feet.

And the glory, the glory of a Very Philly Christmas shall be (and was) revealed!

Check-in table festooned with holiday cheer. Check out those welcoming smiles.

One glimpse of this stunning seasonal door-hanging made this figure skater want to get to a rink–stat!

This has to be in the top five of my all-time favorite photographs taken. Mother and child radiate love, and how cute is the boy with the heart-shaped hand signal?

Woodford Mansion’s grandeur in holiday splendor.

Doesn’t this miniature display of winter frolicking make you want to “go Liliputian?”

Cedar Grove’s white fence draped with greenery: simple and elegant.

Laurel Hill Mansion decked out and decking the halls.

Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Justina Barrett and site manager of Mt. Pleasant and Cedar Grove shines as brightly as the makeshift fire.

Guides and docents at the historic homes know their homes inside and out. They’re all so friendly, to boot.

Happy poser next to yet another uniquely decorated tree. I lost count of the sheer volume of decked out beauties.

My particular favorite: the ladies’ fashion tree was stylin’, circa the times.

Posh, charmingly drawn renderings. What’s with the teeny-weeny waists from back in the day. ‘Splain, please.

Impressive factoids. Surely the book would explain the whittled waistlines.

From left, Michael Bolton of Opera Philadelphia with Ed Miller, Project Manager of the Historic Houses of Fairmount Park.

Project Manager Ed Miller with Sharon Kozden. To answer the t-shirt’s question, it’s a little of both.

This one warranted close-up. How does such a little dolly play such a towering harp?

Did you know that silhouettes were then popular in the Quaker community?

Everything about this table setting exemplifies the exacting attention to detail when decorating the houses, no matter the season. The clove-studded patterns in the oranges caught my fancy as well as the faux but exceptionally authentic-looking foodstuff on display behind it.

What here initially draws your eye? The foodie me fancies the gingerbread house. Two stories means second helpings. The woman within is captivated by the entire ensemble, particularly the headpiece.

Another wondrous and visionary work of fashion display. Flapper dress evokes The Great Gatsby.

Founder and Artistic Director of Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra and composer of “Bricolage” Jeri Lynn Johnson informs the crowd about the specifics of the program.

Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra strikes some chords within Woodford Mansion as part of “Bricolage: Philadelphia 1756.”

Bricolage performer on flute, Michael Langston.

From left, Michael Langston and percussionist Donnie Johns.

Zut alors! This house has got a fenced in yard, arched entrance and more. Much too pretty to bite into while tempting to want to do so.

While the oysters themselves are not real, the shells are. Real or not, they look positively slurp-worthy. Pass the lemon and cocktail sauce.

From left, Messiah performers Frank B. Mitchell III (bass-baritone), Veronica Chapman-Smith (soprano), Joanna Gates (mezzo-soprano) and Benjamin T. Berman (tenor).

Collaborative accompanist Reese Revak adds a special and unique touch to the excerpts from Handel’s Messiah performance by playing the house’s 1808 pianoforte.

Applause, applause and more applause was more than well-warranted.

PHLASH on hand to transport tired tour-takers at event’s conclusion (as well as during tour) to starting-point houses, where vehicles were parked. Happy feet, indeed!

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