Monday, November 1, 2010

A Random Act of Culture at Macy's in Philadelphia

This past Saturday at Noon the Opera Company of Philadelphia mounted a surprise performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah (with a lot of help from many other choruses and ensembles) in the women's shoe department at Macy's Center City, accompanied by the extraordinary Wanamaker Organ. There were over 600 participating singers! This performance was made possible by the Knight Foundation as part of their national "Random Acts of Culture" program, and coincided with the launch of the new Knight Arts Challenge Philadelphia.

Given the scale of this undertaking it was perhaps not as much of a complete surprise as many similar arts flash mobs have been. The singers perhaps even outnumbered the shoppers surprised by the "spontaneous" performance. Yet it still worked. The performance coincided with the regularly scheduled Noon organ concert, the performers were dressed in ordinary street clothes, often accompanied by children or partners. The regular patrons knew SOMETHING was going on, but really were totally unprepared for the immersive experience of being surrounded by this great piece of vocal music, with the thunderous accompaniment of the Wanamaker Organ.

A digression on the organ, since coincidentally the same week I joined a University of the Arts class led by its teacher, artist Billy Blaise Dufala (who works as an artist with his brother Steven as the Dufala Brothers), for a thorough (and thoroughly fascinating) "backstage" tour of the organ.  It consists of nearly 30,000 (!) pipes. The Wanamaker Organ - the largest of its kind in the world - began its life as a 10,000 pipe organ built for the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. Philadelphia department store magnate John Wanaker bought it for his new Philadelphia store across from City Hall and over the years continued to add to it. Having now seen it up close, crawling through its nooks and crannies, watched the caretakers of this beast lovingly restoring its immensely complex workings, it is truly not just an extraordinary piece of machinery, but a massive work of art/craft. It is also amazing how completely it is integrated into the fabric of what is now Macy's. Pop behind a nondescript door in women's lingerie and - voila! - you are in a world of 100-year-old handmade pipes and machinery. It is a National Historic Landmark, and another of the many "hidden" Philadelphia treasures that need to be better known and supported. Bravo to Macy's for supporting and celebrating this enormous asset in its store, and to the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ for restoring and managing it.

More RAC

But back to the Messiah Flash Mob. There was great coverage of the event in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and I am sure a You Tube video will appear soon. For now, you can go to this area of OCP's website for more information and still photographs. This event builds on the enormous success of the Opera Company's staging of Traviata in Reading Terminal Market in April of this year, a YouTube video that is up to NEARLY 3 MILLION views! Here is a link to the video. [And after this was originally posted, OCP posted the "official" video to YouTube.  The video is included in the OCP web page linked to above, but here it is below:]

These cultural interventions - which Knight is now investing in - are one of the great new developments in the arts, I think. This is another performing arts variation of the growing interest in sophisticated visual arts interventions that run the gamut from "street art" to temporary art projects that find their way into your everyday life, so you experience art without having to make a conscious decision to have "an arts experience." I wrote about this phenomena a few times over the past year, beginning in late 2009, here, here and here.


  1. This is wonderful!

    Thank you for the great write-up.

  2. In your opinion, what are the greater implications for performing arts organizations, as they try to reach their audiences in new ways? Are we to re-define our experiences by this by-chance consumption? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

  3. I think this new trend of "flash mob" (for lack of a better term) performances is actually very healthy for the performing arts. It is a way of reaching audiences where people gather as part of their daily life. People are increasingly reticent about traditional theatre experiences as well as traditional audiences. These casual, accessible arts experiences break down those barriers and can make art forms like classical music, opera, ballet, more approachable and I think that will lead to new audiences. I also think, handled well and with great artistry, these types of performances have the potential of becoming new art forms in and of themselves,not just vehicles for building awareness to lead to traditional arts attendance. See some of my earlier blog posts that explored this. I also think Knight Foundation is doing a great thing by helping arts groups explore this new world with their Random Acts of Culture program.