On a cruise ship with a crew of 1,500, Steven Heitlinger was the only violist in the ship’s string quartet.
Though he no longer works as a musician on the Holland America Line, he sometimes feels the same solitude when playing in large orchestras.
“Up in the Allentown Symphony [Orchestra], I love playing up there, but it’s a 100-piece orchestra and there are people who I still have not met even after [playing for] six or seven years now,” said Heitlinger, who teaches viola at Temple Music Prep, a non-credit division of the Boyer College of Music and Dance. “It’s easier to get lost in a bigger crowd.”
Today, Heitlinger feels a close connection with his fellow members of the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra, the self-conducted ensemble-in-residence at the Church of the Advocate, a historic 19th-century church on Diamond Street near 18th.
Founded in 2013, the 17-piece string ensemble, which consists of many Temple alumni, performs several concerts at the Advocate each year, and occasional performances at other venues.
On Friday, Prometheus performed its concert “Illumine.” The performance included “String Quartet in F,” a piece by French Impressionist composer Maurice Ravel, and Benjamin Britten’s “Les Illuminations,” a nine-part composition set to poems by French poet Arthur Rimbaud.
Prometheus formed five years ago when several Philadelphia musicians wanted to break away from some of the traditional constraints of classical musical performance. Spearheaded by violinist Vena Johnson and bassist Jerrell Jackson, who have since left the ensemble, the group established its residency at the Advocate to directly engage with North Philadelphia, a community which traditionally lacks access to classical music. Major ensembles like the Philadelphia Orchestra and Opera Philadelphia perform mostly in Center City.
Johnson said the orchestra wanted to permanently embed itself in North Philadelphia to break down the “fourth wall” between itself and the audience.
“A lot of times orchestras will kind of parachute into a neighborhood or a community and try to build a relationship that way, and it’s a little difficult,” said Johnson, a 2010 violin performance and music education alumna. “We thought maybe if we started an ensemble in a community from a grassroots level, then maybe we could change that relationship.”
Prometheus has a pay-what-you-wish policy for all its concerts at the Advocate.
Outside of its scheduled performances, the ensemble holds open rehearsals where congregation members and other community residents can listen and give feedback. They also sometimes play in the Advocate Cafe, the church’s daily soup kitchen.
“I know that our patrons really enjoy that,” said the Rev. Renee McKenzie. “[Prometheus] thinks of music in a very creative way in terms of, ‘How do you bring different voices together…different kinds of cultural roots together to make something incredible?’”
Occasionally, Prometheus has stretched outside the boundaries of classical music to explore other genres. At a John Coltrane celebration event a few years ago, McKenzie said the ensemble performed an interpretation of “A Love Supreme,” Coltrane’s acclaimed 1965 album.
In addition to reducing economic barriers to music, Jennifer Boorum, a 2005 music history alumna and violist in Prometheus, said the ensemble wanted to eliminate the boundary created by having a conductor.
“We try to break down some of the typical barriers that you find in classical music, where you go to a big hall and there’s a stage and you’re really removed from the performers,” Boorum said. “We remove the conductor so the focus is not on that one person leading, and you can actually see the communication.”
The absence of a conductor, Boorum said, also allows the musicians to collaborate in curating its performances. They use online polls to vote on ideas for concerts in the upcoming season.
During Friday’s concert, dramatic swells of strings loudly echoed inside the church’s sanctuary, which is marked by its vaulted stone ceilings. In the second piece, a recurring motif of plucked strings accompanied guest vocalist Rebecca Myers as she sang excerpts of Rimbaud’s poems, surrounded by a ring of Christmas lights at her feet.
Elizabeth Vander Veer Shaak, a folk violinist and attendee of the performance, said the sanctuary’s reverb complemented the music.
“Sometimes the notes can clash because there’s such a long delay,” said Vander Veer Shaak, who is also a violin bowmaker and the owner of Mount Airy Violins & Bows. “[But] these two pieces were perfect.”
Vander Veer Shaak has attended most of Prometheus’ performances since it was founded. She said she loves the collaborative energy that comes from an ensemble without a conductor.
“The focus of the whole ensemble trying to just stay as one, there’s nothing like it,” Shaak said.
About 120 people attended “Illumine” on Friday. For Boorum, it’s exciting to know audiences continue to support their unconventional work.
“I remember coming out of this back room [in the sanctuary] for our first show,” Boorum said. “I remember not knowing if anybody would come. And we stepped out and we had this full crowd. It was so moving.”