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Creative Differences — and Similarities — in Philadelphia's Arts Scene

September 4, 2013 By:
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Illustration by J.A.Kemp

Broad Street has turned into quite a destination. Since it came under the stewardship of the Avenue of the Arts, Inc. in 1993, Philadelphia’s own broad way has become the region’s epicenter of performing arts, and the new season promises to continue to build on the momentum created by the openings of facilities and events like the Kimmel Center, the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts and more. But before the lights go up on fall’s offerings, it’s time to pull the curtain back to reveal the men and women onstage and behind the scenes. What drives them to strive for excellence, year after year, season after season, show after show? The urge to create may be a primal one, but its evolution into craft takes years of practice, discipline, courage and sacrifice. The artists profiled here may belong to different disciplines, but they all share one thing in common: Their mix of inspiration and perspiration begins with one ingredient, one play or movie, one song or instrument.

The Musicians

What makes someone fall in love with a particular musical instrument? For Michelle Rosen, it was bassoon beshert. “The flute is what I learned first, but when I was 13 and in 7th grade, I vividly remember the concert band director asking, ‘Does anyone want to switch to the bassoon?’ and I raised my hand,” says Rosen, principal bassoonist for the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. “I didn’t even know what a bassoon was. I just wanted to be different and take on a challenge.”

For Ohad Bar-David, it was the cello first and forever. Born and raised in Israel, Bar-David is in his 26th year as a cellist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Bar-David chose the cello — or it chose it him — when he was 7 years old. His passion made him a prodigy. He received scholarship support from the American-Israel Cultural Foundation and performed in Tel Aviv’s biggest concert hall, The Mann Auditorium, at age 13.

Rosen and Bar-David say that their earliest inspirations came from excellent teachers. Bar-David had what he calls the greatest experience of his youth at the prestigious Jerusalem Classical Music Centre. It was 1974, Bar-David was 15 years old and he met and played music with Pablo Casals, Isaac Stern and other great musicians. “To watch, hear and learn from masters was educational and inspirational,” he says. “For us, a bunch of teenagers, it was, ‘You think you’re good now? Look at what you can become.’ It was a transformative experience.”

Rosen’s own journey began with her acceptance to Juilliard’s Saturday program for high school students. “I will never forget the first rehearsal I had,” she says. “Being in an environment of such creativity and excellence was amazing. It raises your game, so to speak, to be surrounded by people who are more accomplished than you are. I was inspired to learn, practice and grow so that I could contribute.”

So instead of hanging out at the mall or going to movies, the 16-year-old Rosen and her bassoon boarded a 6:30 a.m. Long Island Rail Road train near her home in Westbury, N.Y., and rode it into Manhattan for classes that began at 8 a.m. All day and into the evening she played, leaving Juilliard at 5 p.m. and arriving home by 7 p.m. Bar-David also had hours and hours of practice and performing throughout Israel and, eventually, around the world.

It wasn’t just the training that was hard on their younger selves. During the late 1980s of Rosen’s teendom, playing classical music was, like, totally not awesome. Bar-David says that it was not groovy to be a boy wonder cellist in the 1970s, when Stevie Wonder and Jim Croce dominated popular music. “Oh, we were nerds,” Bar-David laughs. “In Israel, there was a strong appreciation for classical music. As an outstanding musician, you were respected. But that’s not to say that we were cool. We were not.”

Rosen looks back at her teenaged self and sees the loneliness that came from choosing to be different. “But I also see the perseverance and discipline that were ingrained in me at that age,” she says. “I believe that honing a craft — whether ice skating or gymnastics, but especially the arts — is a great life lesson.”

Bar-David agrees with that. However, he admits, “there is something solitary about practicing in a room alone. That takes a social toll.” It also took an academic toll. Bar-David left high school in his junior year and studied on his own to earn Israel’s equivalent of a GED. In the meantime, he spent two years travelling and performing with the Israel Chamber Orchestra in Paris, Belgium, Montreal, Brazil and other countries.

The cultural curiosity and love of travel instilled in the 16-year-old Bar-David remain his strongest inspirations. They drove him to create Intercultural Journeys, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization that he formed in 1998. A musical Peace Corps, Intercultural Journeys unites musicians from different countries and cultures to perform and learn from one another through events in the United States and abroad.

Bar-David says travel also inspires his performances. “To play with the orchestra in halls built in different eras of different materials is to hear how physical places influence the sound of the music,” he explains. “We, the orchestra, traveled to places that are so foreign to us — in language, food, culture — but we connect to the audience through music.”

Rosen also points to her travels in Europe and Russia as inspirations. Her academic travels took her to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., then the Curtis Institute of Music. In 1997, Rosen notched a rare spot for a woman: bassoonist for the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. She still holds that chair, now as principal bassoonist. Rosen also teaches music at Rowan, Penn and Temple. “Teaching the next generation to appreciate the arts is critical,” she says. “It is paying it — or playing it — forward.”

The Producers

Great stories bring joy to the heart of Sara Garonzik, executive producing director of Philadelphia Theatre Company. In the 31 years she has been with the company, Garonzik has produced more than 140 world or regional premieres of major new American plays or musicals. Excellent scripts and directors have served as her inspiration, especially from the world of cinema. “The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Boogie Nights, Schlesinger, Scorsese, Bergman, Fellini,” she lists. “I love the gritty sensibility that contextualizes what is going on right now in our culture. I look for it in work that we produce.”

Gritty realism from the 1990s — via Pulp Fiction, Clerks and Falling Down — with a dose of the macabre — Lost Boys and Interview with the Vampire — served as inspiration for the teenaged J. Andrew Greenblatt. While there were actors running around saying lines in those films, Greenblatt focused on Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith and Joel Schumacher, the creative forces behind the camera.

Today, his life has become even more intertwined with cinema. As executive director and CEO of the Philadelphia Film Society, Greenblatt produces its monthly series and annual festival that showcases more than 200 films. He is also a producing partner, along with Marc Erlbaum, at Bala Cynwyd-based Nationlight Productions, responsible for movies like Café and Everything Must Go.

Both Garonzik and Greenblatt were following different life scripts before theater and film became their spotlights. Garonzik’s theater career began with a name few would recognize today: Velma Sparrow. “Please don’t make me reveal that part of my life,” Garonzik groans. After several hefty nudges, she acquiesces. “But please explain that I was embarrassed as I told the story.” Noted.

Garonzik was a 20-something graduate student majoring in Spanish at the University of Pennsylvania when she saw a flyer announcing auditions for the Actors Lab Theater Company. No experience was required, which was a good thing, because Garonzik didn’t have any. Neither at Girls’ High, where she was a member of the Jewish sorority Tau Epsilon Chi, nor Temple University had Garonzik acted, sang, danced or performed in any other way. Theater was not part of her childhood; she had seen a few musicals with her family and, because a date took her, one modern play by a new writer named Terrence McNally. That was the sum total of her theater experience. (Ironically, McNally is now one of America’s most acclaimed playwrights, and he has such a strong relationship with Garonzik that he frequently world-premieres his new work at Philadelphia Theatre Company.)

Garonzik walked into that audition and won the lead role of Velma Sparrow in the Actors Lab Theater Company’s production of Birdbath by Leonard Melfi. “It was a two-hander from the 1960s about a shy young girl who gets picked up by a writer in Manhattan,” Garonzik explains. “Over the course of the night, several revelations are made known, including a secret of what Velma has just done.”

Was she any good in it? “I had no technique at that point,” Garonzik laughs. “I didn’t know that there was a technique to have. I was powered by intuition and feeling. But somehow, I got great reviews. And although I knew that I didn’t want be an actress, I did know that I wanted to be in theater.”

Fully bitten, Garonzik dropped out of graduate school to pursue a career in theater. She directed plays, then segued into producing, eventually joining the Philadelphia Theater Company in 1982. She became producing director in 1990 and now serves as executive producing director.

The opening scenes of Greenblatt’s career took place in law school. His concentration on Constitutional law and clerkships in Washington, D.C. Superior Court had him thinking about pursuing a judgeship. At the same time, Hollywood was also calling — literally. A friend formed a Los Angeles-based production company and needed his legal advice. Eventually, the calls led to in-person consulting that resulted in Greenblatt joining Film 101 Productions to handle its business affairs. During his tenure, Film 101 produced five films, among them Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, a documentary that followed the lead singer of the band Dengue Fever as he returned to his native Cambodia. Film 101 also produced the less serious but culturally relevant documentary, Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong.

By 2008, Greenblatt was ready to root himself in Philadelphia to begin the next chapter of his life as executive director of the Film Society. But he wasn’t quite done producing — he had recently read a book that became the inspiration for his biggest producing project to date.

Based on the novel of the same name by Nick McDonell, Twelve was a script that floated through Hollywood, ultimately settling in Greenblatt’s hands. “It was a difficult script,” he explains, “but I believed that it was a story that had to be told.” Tell it he did. Greenblatt became the film’s executive producer and co-created a film that starred Emma Roberts, Rory Culkin, Zoë Kravitz and 50 Cent, and premiered as the closing film of Sundance Film Festival in 2010. Greenblatt nurtured Twelve from script to screen with one of the directors whose posters adorned the walls of his teenaged bedroom: Joel Schumacher, who helmed films like A Time To Kill, Falling Down and Lost Boys.

“We first met in New York in the office of one of the producers, and Joel was the nicest, sweetest guy you can imagine,” Greenblatt remembers. “We walked around Chelsea talking about the script. I had long believed that the real story of Twelve was about extremely privileged, jaded kids not being parented. When I asked Joel, ‘What do you think the story is really about?’ he immediately said, ‘Extremely privileged, jaded kids not being parented.’ To share a creative vision with a director is critical. To share a creative vision with Joel Schumacher is incredible.”

Garonzik agrees. “Nothing is more inspirational than working with gifted artists,” she says. “My mission is to create an environment in which art will flourish and then support that art administratively. I have learned that genius can present itself anytime, anywhere. As a producer, my inspiration is to provide assistance to writers, directors and actors who create meaningful, deep work that engages the soul. Our job is to feed our audiences a steady diet of brilliance.”

The Conductors

Writing is one craft, music another, producing yet another. How does one learn to write and produce music? Robert A.M. Ross and Daniel Shapiro are two people who can provide first-hand explanations. Ross is director of the Arbel Chorale, which specializes in Jewish music. He is also choir director at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park and at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, and is the chair of the music department at Community College of Philadelphia.

Daniel Shapiro graduated summa cum laude in 2011 from the Curtis Institute of Music with a degree in composition. He is now on Curtis’ faculty as composition coordinator, a position he holds while earning a Ph.D. in music composition from the University of Pennsylvania as a Benjamin Franklin Fellow. Although he is only 28 years old, Shapiro has won commissions from the American Composers Forum in partnership with the Philadelphia Orchestra Association, Philadelphia’s Network for New Music, Lyra Society, Italy’s International Opera Theater and other institutions. His work has been performed at Lincoln Center, the Ravinia Rising Stars Series, the Kimmel Center and the Academy of Vocal Arts. This summer was Shapiro’s second as director of the Atlantic Music Festival at Maine’s Colby College.

Both Ross and Shapiro sing and play multiple instruments, and although they are decades apart in age and cultural influences, both men got their first musical inspiration from the same place: the French horn. “The trumpet came first. I started playing that in 4th grade because my parents forced me into it,” Shapiro says. “But my heart belonged to French horn. It is a curvy, beautiful instrument. Eventually, I ended up learning it and played at my parents’ synagogue.”

Ross’ first instrument was a plastic ukulele from the corner drugstore. But it was love at first sight when he was introduced to the French horn in 6th grade at a school assembly. At age 13, Ross got his first guitar. “It was a silver-toned model from Sears,” he remembers. “That exploded my interest in music because I could work on different chords and harmonies, and see how harmony goes with melody.”

Throughout high school, Ross played the French horn, tuba, guitar and bass with the marching band and in a band with his friends, and he sang. Shapiro also sings, and the men’s singing and playing of multiple instruments has had the same effect on each of them: They can hear music that doesn’t yet exist. Both Ross and Shapiro began composing music in high school. One of Ross’ first creations was what today would be called a mash-up: Santana’s “Evil Ways” rearranged with “Lucretia McEvil” by Blood, Sweat & Tears. Shapiro stuck to classical music and, during his senior year of high school, won a National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts award for two of his compositions.

Despite their demonstrable talent, when it came time for college decisions, both Shapiro and Ross pursued other careers. Ross went to Temple University and earned a degree in music education, then worked in graphic arts before returning to Temple to earn dual master’s degrees in composition and choral conducting. Before his acceptance at Curtis, Shapiro attended West Chester University and enrolled in premed classes because he wanted to be an oral surgeon — an unlikely choice for an NFA winner. “It really appealed to me,” he laughs. “Becoming a composer seemed like a crazy idea.”

But crazy came true. How does he write music? From where in the brain’s creative chamber does the music come? “It’s like chasing a ghost,” Shapiro says. “I hear the shadow of things. Ordinarily, I hear strings, so I begin to write it as strings.”

Why strings? “Listen, don’t ask me to explain this thing that I don’t quite understand myself,” Shapiro laughs. “I hear it as strings but I play it at the piano. That’s just how it comes out. I put it down in writing and begin to approximate what I hear. Then, over time, I rework the pieces. But sometimes, I write a piece that I can’t hear in my head, so I have to sculpt it and mull it over and re-orchestrate it.”

Asked for their inspirations, Shapiro points to his mentor. “Richard Danielpour was my advisor while I was at Curtis, and even though I graduated, I still consider him a mentor,” Shapiro explains. “He lives in New York, so once a week, I would take the train to Manhattan. He was the last student of Leonard Bernstein and teaches the same way, by playing at the piano and having long discussions about the music. Those were wonderful mentoring sessions. He really became a father figure for me — and he is Jewish, so that was a big influence.”

Ross began his work in Jewish music when he sang in congregational choirs during his undergraduate days at Temple. That was despite the fact that Ross’ Hebrew was halting at best. He rectified that through study, becoming a Bar Mitzvah at age 48. The ceremony was held at Adath Jeshurun, where Ross was (and still is) the choir leader. “I had 70 guests there from all of the choirs I conducted,” he remembers. “All of my guests from all of the different choirs sang for the service. To hear a chorus of 70 singing ‘Shehecheyanu’ was amazing to hear. It was one of the most spiritual and special performances of my life.”

Melissa Jacobsis a contributing editor to Inside Magazine, where this article originally appeared.

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