Orchestra Concordia has had a number of telling experiences since its inception. Most recently, at its last concert, guest violinist Hirono Oka dedicated an opening solo to a member of the Wayne-based organization lost during COVID-19, and to all the lives lost in the pandemic. “Her playing was so moving there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience when she finished,” recalls founding president Joyce Prichard. “During the moment of silence that followed, you could’ve heard a pin drop.”
Several days later, Prichard learned that Oka, a first violinist for the Philadelphia Orchestra, had lost her own mother three weeks prior. “I couldn’t imagine the fortitude it took her to play,” she says. “It was moving. But you can cure almost anything with music.”
Founded and operated solely by women, the nonprofit community orchestra’s mission is a simple one—to make great music accessible to all. Since 2016, it has offered free concerts featuring its 50 volunteer members, and there’s always a world-class soloist like Oka. When life went virtual, conductor and music director Gary D. White created new shows using archival footage that had existed only for historical purposes. “We didn’t care for the Zoom presentations other arts organizations were doing, so we figured, ‘Why reinvent the wheel?’” Prichard says. “The new concerts ran on YouTube as a way of keeping the audience engaged.”
Now that live shows are back, Orchestra Concordia will continue to stage free concerts at places like Radnor Middle School and Wayne Art Center. “A lot of people aren’t exposed to this kind of music, so why would they spend hundreds of dollars to travel into the city to see a concert?” Prichard poses. “If they can experience one for no charge, we’re confident they’ll be back.”
Now entering its seventh season, the group will feature Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster David Kim on November 11, playing a long-awaited makeup performance of his favorite violin concerto by Tchaikovsky. “The most delightful element for me is the opportunity to perform in my community,” says Kim, who lives in Bryn Mawr. “It’s a win-win, as audiences love hearing their favorite musicians perform in a solo setting—and we musicians so enjoy the limelight.”
For next year’s May 12 performance, the lineup will include Philadelphia Orchestra assistant principal cellist Yumi Kendall and the Academy of Vocal Arts’ Timothy Renner. “There’s nothing like attending live orchestra performances to experience the emotion that great music inspires—unexpected moments, the virtuosity of the soloists and orchestra musicians, the sheer beauty of the music and the spontaneous reactions of the audience,” says Prichard, a violinist. “The arts enhance the community, and we’re bringing joy and healing at a time when we especially need it.”
Back in 2015, distressed over cuts in music education and the affordability of quality live music, Prichard feared that the general public would soon be shut out from experiencing great orchestral music. And could it be that orchestras might even cease to exist? She got together with Nora Anne DiLemmo, Elaine Sloan and Lesley Katz to conceive Orchestra Concordia’s “approachable and enjoyable” experience. “Our audience enjoys learning about the pieces they’re listening to through the short introductions,” she says. “I’d also add that the OC musicians have formed a tight-knit community.”
One outside rehearsal is especially memorable. Unable to meet in a concert hall due to COVID-19 restrictions, members tackled Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony on the lawn of the Radnor Historical Society. “The playing was heartfelt and uplifting,” says White. “The other amazing part was that the whole neighborhood came out. People were sitting in lawn chairs, opening windows and standing (socially distanced) around the orchestra.”
Orchestra Concordia’s founding members learned to play their own instruments in local schools and continue to perform with the organization. They also drew upon their business and teaching experience, while filling out their ranks with Wendy Tarnoff as director of communications. Tarnoff is also the orchestra’s principal flutist, rehearsing with her fellow musicians every Friday night for up to seven weeks prior to each concert.
It’s also worth noting that Orchestra Concordia has a 99% retention rate, a remarkable statistic for an all-volunteer group. “The audience usually gasps when we say it’s an all-volunteer orchestra,” says Prichard, a Harriton High School alum who began her career in music education in 1975, teaching at Haverford High School and Villa Maria Academy.
Since similar organizations typically rely on ticket sales, funding Orchestra Concordia has been a grand experiment. Grants and individual donations (at shows or through the website) have kept the startup afloat. Patrons continue to be generous, and its list of supporters is growing. Almost since its inception, the group has been a perennial readers’ favorite in the Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Awards.
Growth is more readily assessed by audience attendance, and the numbers are promising. OC concerts initially attracted about 200 attendees. Now it’s an age-diverse crowd of up to 500. “People are bringing their children, and we’re very pleased with that,” Prichard says. “One element builds on another. Grantors like to see we have community involvement, and we’ve been able to prove we do.”
Orchestra Concordia has been thinking about giving additional concerts beyond the two each year, maybe at different locations—though finding suitable venues is a challenge. Radnor Middle School’s auditorium can seat 660, and there’s an additional hidden bleacher section in the rear that can accommodate another 300. “We joked at our first concert that we hoped to open those doors in the back one day,” says Prichard.
That day may not be far off.
To learn more about Orchestra Concordia, visit their website.