Orchestras began tuning to the oboe, in part, because its sound was more penetrating in a performance setting than gut strings. There were also fewer oboes than violins, and in the earliest orchestras, maybe just one or two, making it the right instrument to sort out a dispute over pitch in the violin section.
At a symphony-orchestra performance in Philadelphia this weekend, there may not be many strings to tune. And possibly not a single oboe up to the task. Few of the 400 or so brass, woodwind, percussion, and string players involved in the performance will be handling instruments even close to working order.
In fact, to prepare for Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, a new composition debuting at the 23rd Street Armory in Philadelphia on Sunday, many of the city’s best professional musicians had to relearn how to play their instruments from scratch. Performing side by side with students, the pros will be playing the disused and discarded instruments—trumpets missing valves, cellos missing strings, clarinets missing mouthpieces—that Philadelphia’s public schools have had to make do with for years.
This rag-tag orchestra is the work of Temple Contemporary, an adjunct of the Tyler School of Art that puts on socially relevant contemporary art projects across the city. The performances on Sunday are only one prong of the program: Temple Contemporary has launched a campaign to rescue every broken-down student instrument in Philadelphia and restore them to their schools.