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After stints abroad, a higher musical purpose

A Curtis graduate has chosen a different musical path, cultivating young talent from poorer areas of the city.

When he gets on the No. 34 trolley to West Philadelphia, Stanford Thompson scans fellow passengers with the fervid eyes of an evangelist.

The convert potential he's calculating isn't religious, but musical. Thompson, after all, is the man whose dream can be summed up in two words:

Orchestras everywhere.

"To be completely honest, I've always been obsessed with the - how do I say this? - the lack of engagement of underserved communities. I consider myself to be among the communities I see in West Philadelphia and North Philadelphia and South Philadelphia, and I sit on the trolley and I think: All of those kids could fall in love with the orchestra. I fell in love with it, they can fall in love with it - if we give these kids the opportunity."

At 24, angered by the lack of opportunity, Thompson has decided that he needs to be the "we."

He didn't have to go this route. A trumpeter at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, he could have taken his diploma in 2009 and started auditioning elsewhere for orchestras or interviewing for teaching jobs. With his blend of soft-spoken sincerity and a highly developed sense of how the world works, Thompson, the grown-ups at Curtis liked to say, would probably be running the institute someday.

But after stints abroad that were, in one way or another, about finding a higher purpose for music, his conscience pulled him three miles west of his alma mater to St. Francis de Sales School at 47th Street, just below Baltimore Avenue. Nuns there gave him the space to start an after-school music program for children from poor neighborhoods to the south and west.

Drawing on several months' experience in Venezuela with its El Sistema music program, he put together Tune Up Philly with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra and in fall 2010 started his young charges on donated strings, brass, percussion, and (sans tricky oboe and bassoon) woodwinds.

By Christmas, mixing and matching players in various ensembles, the students put on a respectable holiday concert that left more than one listener dewy-eyed. Not a single student dropped out in the first year, Thompson says, "although I kicked two of them out."

But the partnership didn't last. The Philadelphia Youth Orchestra peeled off, taking the Tune Up Philly name - plus instruments and money - to 72 students at the People For People Charter School at Broad and Fairmount.

Thompson stayed at St. Francis, along with the students, most of the faculty, and the stalwart support of his major benefactor, philanthropist Carole Haas Gravagno, St. Francis' longtime angel. Renamed Play On, Philly!, the program this year has 110 students and 17 part-time instructors - including Curtis students and alumni - and is quickly regenerating support.

"I think it's great, because now there is another community that has access to a program like this," he says of the split with Tune Up Philly. "We're kind of building things back up from scratch."

Last month, the program received a major shot in the arm when Thompson opened the mail to find a $50,000 check from H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, chairman of the Curtis board. He had heard Thompson speak at a Curtis panel discussion and was moved to make a three-year commitment for a total of $150,000.

Lenfest's action was personal, but Curtis too has put its weight behind its graduate, giving chairs, stands, and other equipment. Its president, Roberto Díaz, a violist, pitched in a set of strings.

"We have given those strings to Zebediah Coombs, and his thing now is that he thinks he can play like Roberto," says Thompson.

A jest, perhaps, but one that points to a key concept of the program: In addition to five days of instruction each week, students have contact with established musical figures so they can begin to visualize success.

Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, made music with them last week. Simon Rattle, the Berlin Philharmonic music director, says he will lead students in rehearsal when he's in Philadelphia in the spring, then have them play under him at Verizon Hall for a few minutes before the Philadelphia Orchestra's program. Current and former members of the Harlem Quartet, Chestnut Brass, Borromeo String Quartet, and Montreal Symphony have shared or will share their experience too.

The program has captured the attention of educators worldwide preparing to set up their own El Sistema programs. It also caught the filmmaker's eye of Jamie Bernstein, who is shooting a documentary called El Sistema USA! in which Thompson is the central figure.

"Stanford is a very complex character, and even with all of the observation we've done of him, I really can't say what makes him tick," says Bernstein. "My mother used to say that my father was a man with a motor, and Stanford is a man with a motor . . . Stanford has trouble sleeping because he's just racing the engine all the time. It's wildly exciting - he's definitely the man for the job."

(Bernstein's involvement is a nice stroke of synchronicity; her father was conductor, composer, and educator Leonard Bernstein, a Curtis graduate, Class of 1941.)

Play On, Philly! fuses important aspects of Thompson's own background. He grew up in Decatur, Ga., the son of two music educators and the seventh of eight siblings, all musical. His father started teaching him trumpet when he was eight - about the age of Play On, Philly!'s youngest students.

Much of focus of the program and its El Sistema brethren is, justifiably, musical. In some countries, El Sistema programs have established youth orchestras that no doubt will stock concert halls with invested listeners for years to come. In this country (including Atlanta, where Thompson's sister Donna works with the program), orchestras and other groups now bearing the consequences of generations raised without classical music are embracing the idea as a means of replenishing interest.

Play On, Philly! students are tutored in a highly structured curriculum of instrumental lessons, theory, improvisation, composition, and ear-training. They play individually, in string orchestra or wind ensemble, full orchestra, and chamber music configurations.

This year is devoted to Brahms.

You haven't lived a full life in music until you've heard four young violists filling a classroom with the stirring anthem at the end of Brahms' Symphony No. 1 on a dark November afternoon, or a trombone section carefully placing pitches in the symphony's chorale.

"I had a teacher tell me once that you have to fill the tank all the way up no matter how far you're planning to drive," said Weston Sprott, a Metropolitan Opera orchestra trombonist, explaining to four Play On, Philly! students why they should always completely fill their lungs before playing.

"You've got to make enough sound so people can hear your playing," he said to one girl. "It would be so sad if your mom came to a concert and didn't even get to hear you play." (Sprott, a 2006 Curtis grad, is one of those talents who had to leave school earlier than anticipated - when he won the 2005 Met audition.)

Thompson, however passionate he is in making the musical arguments for his program, is even more persuasive with the social justifications.

St. Francis de Sales draws its population from extremely challenged neighborhoods, where drugs and shootings are part of the landscape. Some students return at day's end to homes with no parent or guardian; the three hours they spend after school in instrumental lessons and chorus cover a critical span in their day.

It's tantalizing to think Play On, Philly! students are tomorrow's members of the New York Philharmonic. Maybe some will be. But it's the more immediate dividends Thompson likes to emphasize. There's something about the concentration and problem-solving skills it takes to make music that reshapes the mind for other pursuits, he says.

"We have 10 kids that moved into the Musicopia string orchestra, and we have a small percentage, maybe 5 percent, that really see themselves as professional musicians," he says. "I have another 5 percent that could kind of care less, but we're seeing that the majority of the kids are making much better decisions in the classroom. The average change of grades with our kids exceeds the change in grade for kids in the after-school tutoring program. Three hours of music instruction can equal lots of beautiful things away from their instruments."

The school reviews all the students' grades, "and we keep track of what's happening to them emotionally and psychologically," he says.

On the other hand, he has a violist who is eager to attend Curtis, one of two string players studying privately with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Such personal connections have often shepherded young players into the orchestra in the past.

Thompson is armed with other, more alarming statistics about the zip codes in which his students live, based on U.S. census and city research.

"It's not just about giving poor communities access to classical music - that's a cute thing. There's another serious thing, and that's that we're saving people millions. In Philadelphia, of my 110 kids, there are three in danger of getting a life sentence before the age of 19, and it will cost $2 million to put them in prison for life. Thirty-four kids are in danger of spending one year in prison, 26 of them in danger of spending multiple years in jail, which will cost $34,0000. About 65 will end up on some kind of permanent government subsidy - welfare, vouchers, food stamps - getting up to $43,000 in government aid each year.

"We're taking kids and giving them a skill and teaching them to make better decisions. If they can just get better grades and get a high school diploma, they provide $1.2 million in taxes over their lifetime. What this program costs, they would pay back to society in just four to six years. I think we're saving the community lots of money, but we're also playing a high level of music, and sharing that. We want to have pockets of communities all over the city celebrating their kids."

The plan, he says, is to have 10 programs up by 2020. A second is to open in a nearby public school, Henry C. Lea, in January.

Among other things, expanding the program is something Thompson says he can do for Curtis, and the city.

"Several Curtis graduates are my teachers [at St. Francis] now. They're building these connections to the community and showing that their talents can be used for something great outside of the concert hall while building sustainable income. I hate seeing 30 or 35 of the greatest musicians leave Philadelphia every year. My hope is that where my colleagues have had to leave after they graduate, now they will have reason to stay in Philadelphia."

Thompson himself loved Curtis - or rather, aspects of it.

"Things were pretty tough the last two years, because it was obvious I didn't fit in the normal path," he says, referring to the punishing practicing in pursuit of an orchestra job. "In fact, I thought of removing myself from Curtis because I thought I was taking up space someone else could be using."

Two administrators - former dean Robert Fitzpatrick and Mary Kinder Loiselle, director of community engagement and career development services - persuaded him to stay and forge a new path in response to what he saw as gathering storm clouds in classical music. "I refused to believe the numbers of people not showing up for concerts," he recalled, "and I knew there had to be a solution."

"He was searching very passionately," said Loiselle.

Now, he says, he is in a position to "make a lot more noise than I ever could have sitting in the back of the orchestra."