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Donating Has its Rare Privileges: Sitting on Stage at a Rehearsal

May 17, 2016

Hearing The Philadelphia Orchestra live in Verizon Hall is a thrill shared by thousands of music lovers every season. Listening to the Fabulous Philadelphians at a rehearsal is a special pleasure enjoyed by a much smaller group of devotees. But how about watching a rehearsal from a unique vantage point: on stage.

That was the rarest of treats enjoyed recently by Orchestra supporter extraordinaire Ken Hutchins and other donors who made special gifts for this amazing opportunity. In Ken’s case, he actually lost a bid on this chance at the recent Volunteer Committees fundraiser On that Note, but the Orchestra’s Development Office was able to get permission for another seat on stage for Ken, giving him and four other donors the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch two different maestros shape an upcoming concert: Principal Guest Conductor Stéphane Denève … and the legendary John Williams.

Ken Hutchins onstage in Verizon Hall.

“One of the reasons I like to go to rehearsals [he’s been to every open rehearsal this season] is to see how the conductor and the musicians go from notes on paper to a final, live performance, to hear how things change, how the music comes to life.” He marvels at how the conductors can communicate their intentions with minimal instruction, and how the musicians absorb those instructions, and deliver not just during the rehearsal but two or three days later at the performance.

What was it like, sitting on stage, right behind the first violins, enjoying direct eye contact with the conductors? “It was fascinating! Their approach to conducting is so markedly different. Stéphane is very demonstrative and clear; Williams is very subtle. But the way the Orchestra responded … this is such a wonderful Orchestra!”

One moment in particular had a special resonance for Hutchins. It came when Denève was taking the Orchestra through Williams’s Violin Concerto (performed with soloist James Ehnes during subscription concerts in early May.) “Stéphane talked about the importance and background of the Concerto. Williams wrote it for his wife, who had passed away not long before.”

Ken mentions this almost casually, but his connection to Williams’s story is deep, personal, and wrenching: Just about one year ago, his wife died suddenly, after only four years of marriage.

Something even more unexpected happened after the rehearsal: Ken had the opportunity to briefly chat with Williams and to relay this story, and the camaraderie developed between Ken and the other donors that day resulted in one of them taking photos and a short video of this brief but deeply meaningful encounter.

This was merely the latest in a series of events that conspired to give Ken a new focus during his time of grief and a new, driving passion: an intense connection to The Philadelphia Orchestra.

Not long after his wife’s passing, a good friend, Gregg Whiteside (the voice of the Orchestra on WRTI) suggested that Ken get to the Kimmel Center for some live concerts. He was already a donor, but by his own admission he’d been to a grand total of three Orchestra concerts in 35 years!

A few weeks after that friendly suggestion, the Orchestra’s ticket office happened to call, offering subscription options. Ken bought one: nine Saturday night concerts. “I figured it would provide a diversion, as well as a reason to venture out of the house.”

A few weeks later Ken got another call, this time from the Orchestra’s Development Office, asking if he’d consider raising his level of support. “As a result I went from a Concert Circle friend to a Principal Player Circle friend. I liked having the option to attend additional rehearsals, the ability to attend a closed rehearsal, and to attend a Salon Series event to meet the artists in a question-and-answer format.”

The musical wheels were in motion. Over last summer Ken decided to go to the Opening Night Gala, where he met more Orchestra supporters. He went to his first ever Friday afternoon concert. He attended an annual Board of Directors meeting. A casual conversation at Bar Volvér in the Kimmel Center convinced him to support the Orchestra at the Maestro Circle level.

So in short order, Ken went from attending virtually no concerts a season to 9, to 26, plus rehearsals. He bought his 2016-17 subscriptions the day they were announced. He’s moving to Symphony House to be closer to the Kimmel. He’s even including the Orchestra in his estate planning.

How did Ken get so involved so quickly? “I explain it in a couple of ways: The Orchestra itself is so powerful; when you sit in the concert hall, you hear something you don’t hear on CDs or radio. That ability to be literally shaken at times, and just hear not only the musicians but in many cases the response of the audience, that is so beneficial to me. That’s why, when the opportunity came to subscribe for 2016-17, I went to the launch event and bought four series. So yes, I guess I went from zero to 60, or 120, but I like to express it as ‘I came for the music, but I stayed for the people.’ Not only the audience, patrons, and the Orchestra staff I’ve come to know, but also the musicians I’ve met over the past few months. I get a personal benefit out of it. It’s a personal level of comfort to me. And that is really an integral part of where I’m looking to reshape my life.”