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A $1M gift will keep music going

Grant doubles the budget of West Phila. program.

Stanford Thompson, founder and executive director of Play On, Philly!, in November with trumpet players at St. Francis de Sales School in West Philadelphia. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
Stanford Thompson, founder and executive director of Play On, Philly!, in November with trumpet players at St. Francis de Sales School in West Philadelphia. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)Read more

Play On, Philly!, the upstart West Philadelphia after-school classical music program, has received a major vote of confidence in the form of a large gift: $1 million.

The grant, double the program's current annual budget, comes from a philanthropy, Seed the Dream Foundation, a new charity launched by Joel Greenberg, a founder of powerhouse Bala Cynwyd financial-trading firm Susquehanna International Group, and his wife, Marcy Gringlas.

Stanford Thompson, 25, the Curtis Institute of Music graduate who put Play On, Philly! together on a shoestring budget, said he received a phone call from Greenberg in December, the morning a story about the program ran on The Inquirer's front page.

"Joel mentioned they had read the article and were excited about what was going on, and said they wanted to come to classes and wanted to meet as soon as possible," Thompson said.

The potential impact of a gift that size is still sinking in, he added. "With the support from Joel and Marcy, I am really starting to believe that this whole concept of putting orchestras all over the city - it might be possible."

Greenberg did not return messages seeking comment.

Play On, Philly! - modeled after Venezuela's El Sistema program of immersing poor children in intensive music training for several hours a day - is in its first year at St. Francis de Sales School at 47th Street, just below Baltimore Avenue. It has operated so far with the largesse of two of the city's most visible philanthropists: Carole Haas Gravagno and H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest.

"We've been doing everything with as little money as possible, trying to make payroll each month," Thompson said. "I'll admit there are times I got over to Curtis late at night to copy things on the copier, to save a buck here and there. Now, we can work on some different strategies that don't involve us trying to scrape the bottom of the barrel from month to month."

The grant will arrive in thirds over this school year and the following two, and will allow the program to expand to other sites, develop a student peer-mentoring program, improve its evaluation process, increase teaching faculty and compensation, and challenge others to give.

Thompson said the Seed the Dream grant was the first $1 million in a $2.5 million campaign.

In a funding environment that typically demands long cultivation of donors or an arduous grant-writing process, the gift to Play On, Philly! and its students is all the more remarkable for arriving out of the blue.

After the initial call to Thompson, Gringlas, a violinist trained at Indiana University, and Greenberg, a major backer of school vouchers and the politicians who support the idea, attended the Play On, Philly! holiday concert. After a two-hour meeting with Thompson and Gravagno, the couple said they wanted to give the program $1 million.

The money will allow for one additional site next year - in a parochial or charter school - and more students. The plan is to increase the number of students at St. Francis from the current 110 to 150, and to enroll about 100 students at another site, for a total of 250.

Tune Up, Philly - a similar program Thompson started at St. Francis and the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra that now operates at People for People Charter School at Broad and Fairmount, says it has enough funding to commit to operating next school year.

While laying the groundwork for Play On, Philly! to expand, Thompson has already shown his St. Francis students career inspiration well beyond the city limits. Bobby McFerrin visited recently, players from major orchestras have led classes, and Wynton Marsalis will do a guest-teaching stint Wednesday.

In late April, moments before Simon Rattle leads the Philadelphia Orchestra in Brahms, students from Play On, Philly! will step into Verizon Hall to be led by the august conductor in their Kimmel Center debut.

"The highlight of the season for me will be putting those kids on stage with Simon Rattle," Thompson said. "It sure feels great to get a million dollars, but you can't buy what will happen this April. I think, for that, these kids are the richest kids in the city."

Read the series that inspired the donation, and find a multimedia presentation about the

Curtis Institute