In a city of arts leaders who come and go, play musical chairs, and sometimes stage splashy cameos, you could call Robert Capanna the arts community's stealth hero.

Quiet, earnest, and straitlaced, Capanna, executive director of the Settlement Music School, arguably has done more than anyone else to nurture the region's musicians and stock its audiences.

Asked what the 101-year-old community music school does now that it didn't do when he took the helm in 1982, he says:

"Settlement Music School has always done pretty much all of the things we do now, but did them with less scope and less regularity."

Well, not quite. Such modesty belies the steady ambition of a 27-year tenure that will end when he retires Dec. 31.

Capanna is known for being humble, but he will have to brace for some praise today when 400 friends and community leaders gather at the Independence Seaport Museum to celebrate his leadership with a specially commissioned surprise present. (Hint: What gift would most meaningfully touch a composer?)

The Capanna era coincided with a remarkable period of growth in arts organizations in general, but, even so, the feathers in his cap are many and impressive.

The school's enrollment rose from 2,700 in 1982 to 15,000 in 2008.

Three new branches have opened - in Jenkintown, West Philadelphia, and Camden.

Endowment grew from $1 million in 1982 to $10 million in 2008.

Settlement now stakes a claim to being the largest community music school in the country and, with 325 members of the faculty and staff, the largest employer of musicians in the area (though the Philadelphia Orchestra's payroll for musicians is higher).

While it wasn't Capanna who launched lessons for adults at the school, which traditionally caters to children, he did start a chamber-music program for them at the behest of a board member. He greatly expanded a program for advanced students, and launched the school's Kaleidoscope Preschool Arts Enrichment Program, a daily arts-based experience for low-income children.

He also is known for less visible but equally critical moves, such as finding money for an expensive instrument when parents of a talented pianist can't afford one, or calling a teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music to tip her to a student so advanced he should be studying at the renowned conservatory.

In a city that never hesitates to engage in seriously snarky criticism, Capanna has rarely provided fodder.

"I think he's been terrific," says Anthony P. Checchia, artistic director of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, noting that Settlement had managed to grow without becoming impersonal. "I think it's come a long, long way. What was being done there was being done very well, but he's taken it to a different level, which is wonderful. He's a very smart guy."

Capanna, 57, a composer who wakes almost every day before dawn - in the South Philly home he shares with wife Cathryn Coate - to press the pen to score paper. He became active in the Philadelphia music scene at the tail end of what many refer to as a golden age, when public schools had their own orchestras and students were given full-time music instruction. He was here to see those programs fall apart. And as he finishes his Settlement career, he senses a resurgence in the idea that all children in public schools should have regular, full-time music and art instructors.

And yet, in some ways, Capanna doesn't see the old days as something we should want to relive.

"I have a somewhat contrarian view," he says. The old system, he says, served serious students aiming at careers in music. But what kind of experience did it provide for everyone else?

"You can miss the bigger point, which is that what we have jeopardized is the general education of the complete person. And the lack of music, art, and dance from every child's experience has done irreparable harm to the general educational development of children."

Revival of music education, he says, should not be argued on behalf of an art form threatened with obscurity, or even on the basis of some assumed wisdom that says Beethoven and Bach, as part of an established canon, merit attention.

"We should be arguing that we should be doing this because that's what being human is about."

Settlement is the most egalitarian of music schools. Almost anyone can attend - from toddlers to senior citizens, those who have never had a lesson to those already headed for greatness. There are individual lessons, group lessons, ensembles, ear-training, theory classes. Fees are comparatively modest, and discounts are available on instruments.

As successful as the school is, Capanna recognizes that parents have to seek it out, and then they have to be committed to getting their children there once a week. There are financial hurdles, too, but the school apportions about $2 million a year to financial aid. "Which is a lot, considering that we're an $8 million-a-year organization."

If Capanna wishes the net were cast wider, the school has still done an admirable job of identifying and developing talent.

In the last two decades, 21 students have gone on to study at Curtis. Among those who have passed through its six branches in a century are singers and instrumentalists with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra and Boston Symphony Orchestra, composers Alex North and Stefan Wolpe, and a wide variety of amateur musicians. Albert Einstein was a member of the school's board of advisers, and played chamber music there in the 1950s.

As for what the school has done for audiences in the area, one can safely assume that a large portion of the listeners who have an appreciation for what happens on stage picked up that understanding at Settlement. The school claims to have served 300,000 students since its founding in 1908.

Capanna himself did not study there. After a South Jersey childhood (he was born in Camden and raised in Pennsauken and Merchantville) spent commuting to Philadelphia for trombone lessons, he became a student of Theodore Antoniou and Joseph Castaldo at the Philadelphia Music Academy, where he earned a bachelor's and a master's degree in composition. He came to Settlement in 1976 as director of the Kardon-Northeast branch and rose to director in 1982, filling - quite convincingly, it turned out - the very large shoes of his indefatigable predecessor, bassoonist Sol Schoenbach.

Eclipsing Schoenbach's 24 years with his 27, Capanna says that "it feels terrific" to be leaving behind the daily responsibility of running a school. Even at his youthful retirement age, he says, his "long-term goal is to not get another big full-time job."

He has bought tickets to every Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert this season that includes a Philadelphia premiere.

He will devote the end of January to one of his serious passions, playing poker in the Borgata Winter Open.

He hopes to do some consulting and teaching. And more composing.

"I've been a very steady producer of music, but I've been very uncareerist about it," he says. He'd like to get his "wildly unpopular and difficult" music performed more often.

Listeners will have a chance to know Capanna the composer in February. He's contributing a new piece to "I Did Not Have Sex With That Woman," a Chamber Music Now program featuring works set to infamous texts uttered by politicians caught in sex scandals. He's taking on The Meaning of Is, which he has scored for soprano and piano.

Capanna leaves some unfinished business at Settlement. The new Willow Grove branch (replacing the Jenkintown branch) is still under construction. The school's $25 million capital campaign has $4 million to raise.

A search for his successor is just getting under way. The school will be run by Patricia A. Manley, the Germantown branch director, until a new executive director is in place.

Clearly, there's still enough to do that he could have stayed longer.

"But part of the reason I'm leaving now is that there are things that need to happen to move the school forward, and those are not things I can do. I think inevitably the institution needs to change and develop, and after 30 years you can't continue to do that. It's the way life is. Nothing is forever."

Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at pdobrin@phillynews.com or 215-854-5611. Read his blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/

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