• The Train Master Who Engineers Happiness at Morris Arboretum

    The Train Master Who Engineers Happiness at Morris Arboretum

    You can hear the deep-throated whistles from far up the path leading down to Morris Arboretum’s Holiday Garden Railway, a quarter mile’s worth of scale-model steam and electric trains, trolleys, a miniature ski lift, bridges, houses and other buildings, all decorated with twinkling Christmas lights.

    Just inside the narrow winding path leading into the breathtaking display stands Bruce Morrell, the arboretum’s longtime train master. He patiently responds to questions from visitors—and there are a lot of visitors during the holidays.

    “Is the Hess train up today?” asks one parent and obvious rail fan as he urges his kids along. Alas, responds Morrell, not today.

    By longtime, we mean an interest in model railways that spans nearly two decades.

    Morrell has always had a love affair with model trains, as well as the technical and electrical skills to set them up and keep them running—which, as any newbie can attest, is no mean feat. He first started “playing with trains,” as he describes it, as a youngster.

    “I started out with a Lionel set with my brother that ran upstairs for a few weeks around Christmas, and then I got my own set,” he says. “When I got older, I persuaded my parents to let me set it up in the basement. I’ve just always had a love for trains. The only time I didn’t play with trains was when I was in the Navy.”

    Thus began a hobby that—when you consider the skills required to build the foundation, lay down rail beds, track, and scenery, and wire up the whole display—is no mere child’s play. It’s a craft that, in the hands of a master, verges on artwork.

    His preference in childhood was for steam locomotives, but he also had a special place in his heart for the streamlined GG-1 class Art Deco-style electric locomotive built for the Pennsylvania Railroad starting in 1934.

    All his trains were HO scale—87 times smaller than the real thing. That’s still his choice today, although he hasn’t put much time into it. His job at Morris Arboretum takes up 30 hours a week of his time or longer. 

    “I had one layout outside and another in my basement,” he says, “but they’re abandoned because I spend so much time here.” 

    The trains at Morris Arboretum are bigger than Morrell’s sets. They’re G scale, 1/28 the size of actual locomotives and cars.

    The railway runs so smoothly that it’s tempting to think that Morrell, with help from his grandson, Josh Faia, just sets it and forgets it. Not so. The locomotives and cars require constant upkeep. And there’s a lot to keep up. Difficult, at times, especially when parts can be hard to come by. One major supplier, he says, went out of business. 

    The layout has also seen considerable expansion over the years Morrell has overseen it. When he arrived as a volunteer in 2004 (he went on staff in 2007), there were six tracks and two trolley lines. “Now,” he says,” it’s 11 tracks and five trolley lines.”

    Moreover, maintaining the display is a costly responsibility.

    Morrell points to a Union Pacific Big Boy locomotive chugging along a bridge. “That was donated to the arboretum,” he says. “It’s valued at $4,000. The hand-crafted buildings, scenery and bridges are also costly. One building—many of them depict local landmarks such as Lemon Hill and Philadelphia City Hall—is valued at $4,000. Most of the others fall into the $2,000 range. All the bridges and buildings are handmade.

    When the railway isn’t gussied up for the holidays, it runs throughout the rest of the year. However, the holiday display sees its largest boost in traffic.

    “The holiday railway brings more people here,” Morrell says. “Plus, there are night exhibits. The holiday railway carries us through the winter months. That’s the most visits and the most income.”

    You can view Morrell’s handiwork at any time, but, as he suggests, the holiday railway is an especially popular draw.

    Daytime viewing—from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.—is through December 30. It’s free with arboretum admission. There are also especially picturesque opportunities to view the railway at night, weekends through December 23. Tickets are required. For details, visit: https://www.morrisarboretum.org/gardens_railway_hgr.shtml

  • Giving Up His Career in Finance, Chestnut Hill Man Takes a Leadership Role in Guatemala Nonprofit

    Giving Up His Career in Finance, Chestnut Hill Man Takes a Leadership Role in Guatemala Nonprofit

    Brendan Dwyer took his first trip to Guatemala in 2009, as part of Teens, Inc., the Chestnut Hill youth service organization founded by Jane and Dick Becker and directed by Dwyer’s mother Marianne. That first journey was suggested by his older sister Meghan and inspired by another sister Caitlin, who had traveled to Guatemala with a Villanova University group as a volunteer for a non-profit called the GOD’s CHILD Project.

    Dwyer was 16 at the time, between his junior and senior year at Bishop McDevitt High School. Several trips to Guatemala would follow between then and his own graduation from Villanova in 2014, one each summer working for the GOD’S CHILD Project. 

    After graduation from Villanova, business degree in hand, he settled into a job at a brokerage firm in Center City.

    Five years into his career in securities trading, some Teens, Inc., alumni contacted him about taking part in an alumni service trip back to the impoverished Central American country. He said yes. It was June 2019.

    On the plane ride back from his week working in Guatemala, he came to a realization. Dwyer knew then that he wasn’t going to be returning to the world of high finance.

    “I decided I was going to quit my job in the city in December and move back down to Guatemala for a long-term volunteer experience with the non-profit,” Dwyer recalls. “That was something I had always wanted to do. Even when I was 17, 18, I remember my mom encouraging us—me, and my twin brother Mike. She said she thought it would be great if we went down there for a year at some point. At the time, it seemed like a crazy idea.”

    Not so crazy, as it turned out in the long run.

    Once Dwyer had made his decision, he contacted Patrick Atkinson, founder of the GOD’S CHILD Project about a long-term volunteer position. He got a bit more than he had bargained for. Atkinson saw something special in Brendan Dwyer—something he didn’t see in himself. On January 9, 2020, Dwyer headed for Guatemala, not as an everyday volunteer, but as the project’s national director, a position he would hold for two years. He arrived with some nagging doubts and a rusty knowledge of Spanish and dove right in.

    It was quite a demanding role.

    GOD’S CHILD encompasses the Guatemala charity Asociación Nuestros Ahijados, as well as another program called ITEMP, which stands for Institute for Trafficked, Exploited and Missing Persons. Dwyer oversaw programs and staff in Guatemala, and supported stateside fund-raising efforts. 

    “The mission of the nonprofit is breaking the chains of poverty through education, housing, health care and sustainable development,” Dwyer explains. “There are many nonprofits that have a specific focus, like health care or education, but we are all-encompassing. We take a holistic approach to battling poverty in Guatemala. GOD’S CHILD works on an international level, and Nuestros Ahijados works on a local level.”

    As national director, Dwyer oversaw several projects, including the Dreamer Center School, for children in kindergarten through sixth grade, as well as the Scheel Center School, which is an accelerated school program for kids who are behind in their education. “A lot of the kids in the Scheel Center were getting a late start in their education,” Dwyer says, “maybe because their families didn’t have the financial resources to attend, or they were just running around the streets and consorting with street gangs.”

    In addition, Dwyer managed several clinics, dealing with medical and dental issues, crisis care, and mental health.

    He also oversaw a hospital called Casa Jackson Hospital for Malnourished Children. Malnourishment is endemic in Guatemala. “Kids are given, in their baby bottles, coffee at 2 years old, or a bag of chips—opposed to the nutrient-rich foods that children need to grow big and strong,” says Dwyer. “A lot of that is financially driven, but there is also a lack of education around nutrition. You see an incredible transformation in the hospital. A lot of the babies come into the hospital, skin and bones. They may spend up to six months with us. By the time they leave, they’re smiling and chubby—we get them nice, big, and healthy.”

    Dwyer saw many extreme cases of malnourishment in his time in Guatemala. Typically, the hospital only takes in young children, infants to 5 years old, but he remembers one particularly severe case. It was a girl, 18, who arrived at the hospital weighing only 54 pounds. “If you had seen her, you would have thought she was an 11-year-old girl. She came to us from Guatemala Social Services. She was a victim of modern-day slavery,” Dwyer recalls. “She was given up by her parents because they were alcoholics—they basically abandoned her because they couldn’t take care of her. They sent her to live with an aunt, who treated her horribly. She just put her to work all day and didn’t feed her until 10 or 11 o’clock at night. They wouldn’t let her eat with them at the table, and she suffered because of it—physically and emotionally.”

    This story has a happy ending. With help from the health care providers at Casa Jackson, the girl recovered quickly. “She filled out really quickly, because we were feeding her,” says Dwyer. “Eventually, she became a big helper to the nursing staff at the hospital. She was almost like an assistant, taking care of the babies. She never had a formal education, so in between her times helping to take care of the kids at the hospital, she was tutored by the teachers we had on staff at the time.”

    There’s also a mother’s club, comprising up to 350 moms who take part in weekly workshops, including sewing, jewelry and basket making, weaving, cooking and first aid. The club also responds to domestic abuse. “In return for them attending those classes, every Friday morning we have a large-scale food distribution, so all the mothers come through with their reusable bags, and we have mounds of vegetables and fruit, and pizza sometimes—we have a partnership with Little Caesar’s,” Dwyer says. “We take hands full of the produce and put it in the mothers’ bags. For most of them, it’s food for the week, or at least a strong supplement to what they’re able to afford for their families.”  

    One of Dwyer’s jobs was to coordinate international volunteer and service teams. Typically, service teams spend part of their time in country on a three-day home build, digging trenches, putting down a concrete foundation, and erecting a wood frame. Most of the families the nonprofit assists live on dirt floors, with sugar cane stalks tied together with string and rope. The service team-built structures are a vast improvement. During the rest of their stay, volunteers work in the hospital, helping feed babies, changing diapers, and playing with the kids. Volunteers also assist in Friday food distribution.

    When Covid hit, many of those programs were severely curtailed. International volunteers and service teams weren’t allowed in the country. Dwyer had to lay off many teachers and staff members. The remaining staff members had to take on tasks that volunteers previously performed.

    As the pandemic has eased, things began to return to normal.

    Just before Christmas of 2021, Dwyer returned home to Chestnut Hill, and now serves as GOD’S CHILD Project director of community engagement.

    Looking back on his many years with that organization, first as a volunteer and later as national director, Dwyer says there was probably never any question that he would settle into a life of service.

    “It might sound cliché, but it just always felt like the right thing to do,” he says. “I grew up around service work. My mom became the director of Teens, Inc., in 1996. I was born in ’92, so I was around community outreach my whole upbringing. I grew up in a big loving family, a warm home, with an education, food on the table, things that we take for granted and are almost second nature. A big part of our world struggles to have even those necessities, and so I was always motivated to give back and use my talents and gifts to help people who truly need it, to help people who can’t help themselves.”

    To help, text GodsChild or GCP to 50155 to donate via your cell phone.

  • Free Ice Cream, Nature Activities and Art at Friends of the Wissahickon’s 15th Ice Cream Social

    Free Ice Cream, Nature Activities and Art at Friends of the Wissahickon’s 15th Ice Cream Social

    Maybe the only thing better than ice cream on a steamy day in August is free ice cream.

    If you’re interested—and who wouldn’t be—join Friends of the Wissahickon Wednesday, August 10, from 3 to 5 p.m. at FOW’s 15th Annual Ice Cream Social, on the grounds of partner organization Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Avenue, with ice cream and dairy-free sorbet served up by the folks at Bredenbeck’s. While you’re there, you can meet and greet FOW staff and volunteers, the kids can take part in nature-oriented activities, and everyone can explore the grounds and museum. 

    This long, tasty tradition began when FOW had its offices at 8708 Germantown Avenue, the Chestnut Hill Conservancy, then the Chestnut Hill Historical Society. 

    “We rented office space from them for many years, and with that came a great location with the front lawn, and we would just do the ice cream social there,” says Ruffian Tittmann, executive director of Friends of the Wissahickon. “In 2016, we moved our office headquarters out of the Conservancy building because our staff had grown, and relocated up to 40 West Evergreen Avenue. We no longer have a front lawn or a public space up on the avenue to welcome people, and so we’ve looked for various partners over the years. Woodmere has become a great friend to Friends of the Wissahickon through the years, and when we’ve needed a space or a location, we reach out, and if they are able to accommodate us, they do.”

    Of course, there’s more to this old-fashioned tradition than frozen treats. Friends of the Wissahickon hope that all that ice cream and sorbet will serve as a kind of entree to help attendees develop a familiarity with FOW and its programming and more of an awareness of the Wissahickon Valley Park and the need for its care and safe keeping.

    The idea for the ice cream social came from two former board members, Cindy Hecksher, and her daughter, Liz Pearson. Since then, it has grown and developed into quite a draw. 

    Kids especially like it because—aside from the ice cream—there is plenty for them to do to raise their awareness of the natural environment, with help from the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and educators from the Wissahickon Environmental Center.

    “Kids love our watershed model,” says Tittmann. “You can put all the trees and trucks and everything out. Then you can put the ‘pollutants’ on the road and spray it down with water and you see how everything runs downhill and into our waterway, and really understand the impact of both the pollutants and trash.”

    Of course, Woodmere itself is a treasure. “The great thing about being at Woodmere is they have a whole outside experience, whether it’s their large-scale sculpture or the grounds behind the museum,” says Tittmann. “So, there’s lots to do and see. Get out there, meet your neighbors, talk about the watershed, look at great art, eat ice cream. It’s a winner.”

  • Visiting Wissahickon Valley Park? Leave No Trace

    Visiting Wissahickon Valley Park? Leave No Trace

    There are two things you can do right now to make the Wissahickon Valley Park a better place: don’t litter and stick to designated trails. 

    It might sound like a little, but, according to Friends of the Wissahickon Executive Director Ruffian Tittmann, it can all add up to quite a lot. 

    Reducing trash and keeping visitors from forging their own trails are the two key goals of FOW’s Leave No Trace campaign—part of a nationwide effort to preserve the pristine beauty of America’s parks, overseen by the Leave No Trace Center of Outdoor Ethics. 

    “The Center is an organization that operates all over the United States,” says Tittmann. “We were nominated to take part in Leave No Trace by one of our dedicated volunteers who’s an avid park user and educator. He filled out the nomination application, and we were selected to be a designated Leave No Trace Hot Spot in 2019. Because of Covid, the actual training and events associated with being a Hot Spot happened in July 2021.”

    Wissahickon Valley Park is one of 10 vital outdoor areas nationwide named as a Hot Spot.

    The guiding principle behind Leave No Trace is to create a culture of change in how communities use outdoor spaces. The Leave No Trace Center of Outdoor Ethics assigned Leave No Trace educators to train FOW staff and volunteers, city Parks and Recreation workers, and members of the public who were interested in how to change visitors’ behavior in the park. 

    Working with Center advisers, the Friends came up with their two goals to help enact that change.

    So, let’s start by talking garbage.

    How long does a plastic bottle last in nature? Indefinitely—and animals consume them. You can guess that that would be bad. It is. Or how about a used disposable diaper, which, believe it or not, is a not uncommon memento of people’s visits to the 1,800-acre park. Aside from the potential for spreading disease, disposable diapers last up to 100 years in the wild.

    Even items that you might suppose are biodegradable, like banana peels, can last up to two years on the forest floor. These substances are dangerous to the park’s wildlife—aside from making the park unsightly.

    About 2 million people visit the park annually, so the trash can pile up.

    Leaving any of the park’s roughly 50 miles of designated trails also does great harm, according to Tittmann.

    When people traipse, trot, or bike through the undergrowth to create short cuts, other people soon follow. “You scoot through the bushes, and you think, they’ll fluff back up,” Tittmann explains. “But soon someone else sees your path and thinks, it’s a little easier to go that way than here. Then, somebody else walks on it, and somebody else does. If everybody’s walking where they want to, there will be no forest left.”

    Those new trails become open areas for erosion. As water flows through those areas, they can become gullies, carrying dirt downhill, and plants with it.

    So, bottom line: As FOW began mapping out its Leave No Trace campaign, keeping litter in check and persuading visitors to stick to designated trails became the most obvious and best ways to make the park a better place. “Those are the two biggies for us in keeping the park, the land and the water, both a healthy environment and an enjoyable environment,” Tittmann says. 

    As a reminder, you’ll be seeing Leave No Trace signs popping up in several critical locations, like the all too well-known Devil’s Pool—if there’s a jewel in the crown of the Wissahickon, that’s it—and at trailheads throughout the park over the next few weeks. 

    But Leave No Trace is about much more than signs. There’s a lot of people power, with pop-up educational programs, and taking the message directly to visitors.

    Take Devil’s Pool, for example, among the worst kept secrets on social media in the warm-weather months, attracting crowds of people from all over, who swim in the pool’s cooling waters—and who leave behind piles of trash.

    “We have probably a decade-and-a-half worth of data on our trash clean-ups, particularly in and around Devil’s Pool,” says Tittmann. “What we see is, as you have more people in an area, the more trash you have. But an interesting thing we’ve been seeing is that, even before we were designated a Hot Spot, we were implementing some of the techniques of Leave No Trace. And as we’ve had people, either seasonal staff or volunteers, out engaging with the public and encouraging people to carry out what they carry in—and telling them all the reasons why—we have not seen trash grow at the same rates as before. 

    “So, I think that’s a powerful story that we are reaching folks and creating some of this change. Otherwise, as we saw visitorship double, we would see trash double—and we have not been seeing that. We’ve seen it go up, but not at the same rate as visitorship.”

    It might not sound like a lot, but this face-to-face education can result in “a profound change in thought in people,” Tittmann says. “When you think about something like a banana peel, it’s not a native plant, it doesn’t break down easily, and it can be poisonous to some animals. When you provide people with all the whys and the reasons, it can produce a very powerful change in mindset.”

  • How the Ball Bounces: Kids Take the Court at the Water Tower

    How the Ball Bounces: Kids Take the Court at the Water Tower

    They might lack the grace, skill, and height of LeBron, but they more than make up for it in keen enthusiasm and infinite energy. 

    And on this steamy Wednesday night at the Water Tower Recreation Center, one of the not yet very tall fourth and fifth graders playing half-court basketball gets lucky, successfully lofting a genuine buzzer beater, eliciting an excited roar of approval—and astonishment—from the parents sitting nearby, and probably securing bragging rights for a week. The word “swish” was invented for a moment like that.

    “Did you get that, Mr. Camera Man?” one of the parents shouts in my direction. Answer: Sadly, no. The light was fading fast on this muggy night under the minimal shade of the trees. Everything I was shooting at that point was a blur—and, frankly, I didn’t expect the kid to make the shot, either. 

    Up to that moment, the youthful participants were darting about in their brightly colored jerseys, like a swarm of faintly confused bees, occasionally hauling off and executing a basket. Really, to be fair, most of them are still learning the finer points of the game, under the tutelage of encouraging parents and patient, knowledgeable refs. I was just as surprised as everybody else by that magical Hail Mary. But congratulations, anyway. Congratulations to all those future NBA stars, in fact.

    Welcome to the Chestnut Hill Youth Sports Club’s 3×3 Outdoor Summer Basketball League. The younger kids play first, followed by sixth and seventh grade students. This is the program’s first summer on the Water Tower’s open-air court. In each age group, two groups go at it in each half court, and then rotate throughout the night.

    This night under the nets is intended to impart basic basketball skills, but it’s also an opportunity to have fun, for both kids and parents, Cadiann Cole, one of the league’s four commissioners, explains.

    “Most of the kids played in the intramural season in the winter,” says Cole, who has been associated with the sports club for about 10 years. “This was just an opportunity to have fun. The kids get competitive. What sport are you not competitive in? And they get to play with their friends. So far, so good.”

    Roughly 60 kids take part in the summer league, about evenly divided between the fourth and fifth graders and the sixth and seventh grade players. Over time, the club would like to expand the program, bringing in more kids and parents, turning it into something bigger and better. There’s also a desire to improve the court, which, frankly, has seen better days.

    “We want to install new rims, paint the backboards, paint new lines on the court,” Cole says. “We’re trying to put ourselves out there. We want sports to be a safe haven, a place to grow. And as those kids get older, they can bring their own kids here.”

    Basketball means more than just teaching young people how to play the game, she adds. For Cole, who played the game in high school and college, teaching kids how to basketball has its own rewards.

    “I just like coaching basketball,” she says, “to see the kids mature as a person, to see their development. That’s the joy of it.”You can experience the joy for yourself. Check out the photographs.

  • Minas: Bringing the Romance of Brazilian Music to Pastorius

    Minas: Bringing the Romance of Brazilian Music to Pastorius

    One aspect of a successful marriage is the ability to live together in harmony. When it comes to pianist Patricia and jazz guitarist Orlando Haddad—who form the core of the acclaimed local Brazilian sextet known as Minas—living together and playing music together has been about harmony right from the beginning.

    You’ll get the benefit of that harmonious relationship Wednesday, July 13, when they perform in concert in Pastorius Park.

    The two met as music majors while attending the University of North Carolina in Winston-Salem. Patricia had written a song in the bossa nova style, and she approached Orlando, who grew up and learned music in Brazil, to help translate it into Portuguese. 

    “I think the minute we started singing together, our voices blended perfectly—the range, the texture of our voices,” Patricia explains. “That was something we were drawing on. Because Orlando and I had both grown up with classical music and because he and I had such a wide interest in and an openness to so many kinds of music, when we started playing together, it just fit so well. Whatever Orlando would add to a song of mine or whatever I would bring to his, it always seemed to fit like a glove. That just happened on its own.”

    As for the marriage, one thing influenced the other. “We get along so well, we’re best friends,” Orlando says. “We raise kids together. We have very similar tastes in our home décor and things like that. Of course, with music and art and traveling, we have the same interests. We’re still different people, but we just have so much that we share. Music influences romance, and romance influences music.”

    For both, love of music goes back a long way. Orlando learned classical piano music as a child, but changed course when he saw a rock band play in his town of Lavras. He decided he didn’t want to play piano anymore. 

    “I wanted to be in a rock band, and I wanted to play guitar,” he says.

    Orlando was quite familiar with bossa nova as a kid and really liked it, but, he says, the chords were hard to play on guitar. Rock chords were far easier. Hence, the rock band detour. 

    After a while it was time to go to college. “So, I went to music school in Rio de Janeiro,” he says. “Brazil was a military dictatorship, and our music school didn’t even have a single tuned piano in it. And it was run by a general. I guess musicians were seen as left wing. I had some good teachers, but it was frustrating. I took classical guitar lessons from an ex-pat from Switzerland who was living in Rio and learned a lot about classical guitar.”

    Over time, Orlando’s frustration reached a breaking point, and he moved on to the University of North Carolina in Winston-Salem.

    Patricia’s path to a musical career began early and was perhaps more straightforward. She started performing in musical theater when she was 7 years old. 

    “My mother used to hear me singing around the house and I was always banging on the piano when I was pretty young,” she says. “I was very drawn to that. Then, from musical theater I went into University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where they wanted me to go into the opera department, but I didn’t relate to that whole formal world. I was interested in jazz at that point. I had come across Chick Corea and then at that point I was influenced by Sérgio Mendes. By that time, I was primed, when I met Orlando, to talk to him about putting a group together.”

    While at UNC, the two came to attention of an agency in town that hired university music majors. They were both juniors in the program.

    “People would call and ask, could you send us a couple of musicians for this or that function,” Orlando recalls. “We got one of those calls, so we put some songs together. They were mostly covers from Sérgio Mendes and Getz/Gilberto.” And that was how, in 1978, Minas began. 

    They performed all over the Eastern United States before moving to Brazil to immerse themselves more fully in the music. In 1984, they moved back to the United States, this time to Philadelphia, where Patricia had relatives and ultimately earned a master’s degree in jazz piano from the University of the Arts.

    Years later, here they are, still performing to wildly enthusiastic audiences, drawn to their creative approach to the rhythms—and harmonies—of bossa nova, samba, jazz, some avant-garde pieces, and even some Beatles.

    After all this time, they can’t imagine doing anything else.

    “We both really believe that music is very healing to all kinds of people,” says Patricia. “We’ve seen that over the years with audiences. It’s probably the most important thing to us. Music can just cross bridges and directly influence people from heart to heart. You don’t need to have a conversation with anybody. You can just go and play music.”

    Minas appears at Pastorius Park Wednesday, July 13, at 7:30 p.m. Pastorius Park is located off Millman Street and West Hartwell Lane, two blocks in from Germantown Avenue.

  • The Choir of Christ’s College, Cambridge, to Perform at St. Paul’s

    The Choir of Christ’s College, Cambridge, to Perform at St. Paul’s

    The University of Cambridge goes back a very long time indeed, founded in 1209. The choir of Christ’s College Cambridge isn’t quite that old, first breaking out in song in the early 1500s. But compared to musical ensembles in the United States, Christ’s College choir has centuries of tradition behind it—and you can hear this highly experienced chorale July 9 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill.

    While perhaps not as well-known as the Choir of King’s College at Cambridge, the Christ’s College choir is wonderfully accomplished. The choir often performs with orchestra and has recorded extensively.

    The choir’s repertoire is a blend of sacred and secular, though its principal focus is religious.

    “We sing services in the college chapel,” says Professor David Rowland, the choir’s director of music and professor of music. “We do two services a week, on a Thursday evening and a Sunday evening. Some other colleges sing slightly more, and some do just once a week. Sacred music is our primary purpose. We sing quite a lot of music at each service—probably, if you counted it, six or seven pieces—and mostly they are fairly new pieces. I try to give the choir as much experience of a broad range of repertoire as I can.”

    The Christ’s College ensemble has quite a bit of music to draw on—everything from the immortal English Renaissance composers William Byrd and Thomas Tallis to music from the present day, such as that of Annabelle Rooney, who was once a music student at Christ’s College. The choir is getting set for a new recording, which will include the works of Hubert Parry, among others.

    If your idea of an English choir is a blend of men and boys’ voices, Christ’s College choir offers a difference. 

    Before the late 1970s, the choir had some sopranos in it, says Rowland. They were drawn from Cambridge’s women’s colleges and from throughout the town. Then, in October 1978, Christ’s College admitted women for the first time. 

    “Once women were admitted, we were able to have women join from the college itself,” he says. “I joined the college in 1984, just a few years after it had become mixed, and so I had the benefit of being able to draw on them. Before that time, whoever was running the choir had to run around Cambridge desperately trying to find women to sing soprano.”

    The choir maintains high standards, so there’s a good deal of competition to get into it. Choristers are drawn from all the colleges of Cambridge, not just music. 

    “Most of them, though not all, have had singing lessons before they joined the choir, and that’s a very good thing because some of them come as very experienced singers,” Rowland says. “But particularly for those who haven’t had the experience of singing lessons before, we arrange for singing teachers to come up from London, and that makes a huge difference. Voices at this age develop hugely very quickly, and there are some spectacular cases where somebody who had hardly any voice when they joined the choir, within a year they may have developed quite a big voice, a much more experienced voice. That’s one of the great rewards for me. I love seeing that development.”

    From time to time, those well-developed voices go on tour. On this occasion, the choir is embarking on an East Coast tour, which will take them to Washington, D.C., New York City, Boston—and, of course, Chestnut Hill’s St. Paul’s Church. 

    Expect quite a varied performance.

    “It’s pretty representative of what we sing in chapel, so it’s mostly liturgical music from Tallis up to some of the things we’ve recently recorded by living composers and all stations in between,” Rowland says. “We try to mix it up. I try to incorporate everything from the 16th century onwards. In chapel, we sing short pieces, anything from a couple of minutes to six or seven minutes. A tour gives us the opportunity to sing much more extensive music. We’re doing a piece, for example, by Gerald Finzi called ‘Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice.’”

    Also on the bill are Herbert Howells’ Requiem, a piece by Judith Weir written in honor of the queen’s jubilee, and another composition by Hubert Parry that was performed at the queen’s coronation. A musical feast for devout Anglophiles.

    St. Paul’s came to Rowland’s attention because of the church’s robust music program.

    Andrew Kotylo, director of music and organist at St. Paul’s, is pleased Rowland and his staff made that choice.

    The pandemic put a damper—to say the very least—on St. Paul’s highly regarded music program, but things have picked up in recent months, including the always eagerly awaited Christmas performance by the Mendelsohn Club in December. “We’re doing what we can right now to make St. Paul’s a center for good music for the community,” says Kotylo. “The Cambridge concert fits in with what we want to do.”

    If you’d like to hear this world-class choir, the concert begins at 7 p.m. Saturday, July 9. St. Paul’s Church is at 22 East Chestnut Hill Avenue. Tickets are $25 at the door. Masks are optional.

  • RUNA in Pastorius: On the Road Again

    RUNA in Pastorius: On the Road Again

    When the pandemic hit, the Irish supergroup RUNA found itself off the road for about a year and a half. Now, they’re back, touring the country, playing a wide variety of outdoor festivals and indoor venues, and making up for lost time.

    You’ll see them Wednesday, July 6, in Pastorius Park, another stellar offering as part of the park summer concert series.

    No one is happier about the band’s busy-ness than Shannon Lambert-Ryan, RUNA lead singer, bodhrán player, and step dancer.  

    “We started last August with the Milwaukee Irish Fest and did a few others throughout August, September, and October,” she says. “They were all outdoor gigs. In addition to Milwaukee, we played the Peoria Irish Fest in Illinois, the Kansas City in Missouri, and the Michigan Irish Fest. And we were in Bethlehem (at the Celtic Classic), sort of our ‘home’ gig. And then up to New England for a festival in Mystic Seaport as well. So, we had a nice run of gigs, but all of them were outdoors until February, when we played our first indoor shows. 

    “We felt fortunate to be out for the festivals in the summer, but wary at the same time. That was when the Delta surge had just gotten started. Aside from when we were on stage, we were masked all the time. And when traveling, eating outdoors or in the car, all that kind of stuff.”

    As good as it was to be on the road again, the band managed to remain busy during the down time, wrapping up a holiday album, released in December 2020. They’ve also been working on a regular (non-holiday) album. Much of their pandemic recording has been conducted remotely, with the group’s musicians recording their parts and sending it back to the band’s singer-guitarist and Lambert-Ryan’s husband Fionán de Barra for mixing.

    There are pros and cons to that approach, Lambert-Ryan explains. “When you are working together creatively and you’re in the same space, you get an idea of the energy and the vibe of things that work much more quickly than when you’re doing them remotely,” she says. “Remotely is a lot more clinical, and you listen to each other better together than when you’re working remotely. So, there are pros and cons both ways, but we’ve certainly felt ridiculously lucky for the technology that’s available now, and that we’ve been able to continue to connect and continue to be creative, because if those things weren’t available, we’d have to make very different arrangements or wait longer periods of time (to be together).”

    Much of what will appear on the new album, when it’s finished, are tunes that the band is currently performing, and some brand-new material that just hasn’t been recorded yet.

    You’ll hear many of those tunes next Wednesday in Pastorius. Get ready for some excitement. The band’s joy in being able to perform for live audiences is contagious. At all the band’s performances, Lambert-Ryan says, the energy has just been “explosive, because we’re all just so excited to be there.” At this point in the pandemic’s evolution, audiences are just ready to hear—and respond to—live music. 

    “You take those things for granted until they’re not there,” she says. “I think everybody is ready to be together and in the same space, with that same energy. I think that just encapsulates that sense of excitement everybody’s been having. And so, when we go out to a show and people are happy to be there, having a good time, that’s just everything to us. The ante is upped for everyone in a big way. No one is taking it for granted.”

    The show begins at 7:30 next Wednesday evening (July 6) in the park, located a couple of blocks in from Germantown Avenue, at Millman Street. Photo by Tim Reilly.

  • Celebrating Ups and Downs at Morris Arboretum: The Summer of Swings

    Celebrating Ups and Downs at Morris Arboretum: The Summer of Swings

    Cling, swing, Spring, sing, Swing up into the apple tree. ~ T.S. Eliot

    Visit Morris Arboretum, the University of Pennsylvania-owned preserve at Stenton and East Northwestern Avenues, and you’ll take in a verdant 92-acre vista of trees of all varieties. 

    Ah … but do you really see them in all their glory?

    The arboretum’s education director, Bryan Thompson-Nowak, suggests there might be much more to a tree than you might appreciate at a cursory glance, and he wants to remedy that by treating you to a new point of view—on a swing. Ten of them, in fact, suspended from many of those large trees. Most of the swings are strategically placed along the well-trodden visitor inner and outer loops, and you’ll find a few off the beaten path. 

    And don’t worry about whether you think you’re too old to resurrect childhood memories. Many of those swings are designed to hold a typical adult. So, feel free to kick back … and forth. It’s the Summer of Swings.

    The swings are evenly distributed throughout the arboretum.

    “That’s intentional,” says Thompson-Nowak, “to try and get people in parts of the arboretum they normally don’t go to, to spread people out … to kind of tease people to go into some of the newer parts of the garden, or to do the whole loop.”

    And don’t worry: No trees will be harmed. “We’ve gone to great lengths to make sure the trees are not injured in any way,” Thompson-Nowak says. “So, if you look up to where the ropes go around the tree limbs, they’re not drilled through them with big bolts. They’re not tied by a knot. There’s a block of wood between the ropes and the branches. The ropes aren’t rubbing on the branches at all. Those little blocks of wood are taking all the friction. We put a lot of effort into hanging the swings in a way that is as light on the tree limbs as possible.”

    And the park’s arborists have chosen carefully, he adds. The limbs from which the swings are suspended are huge. They can handle 1,000 pounds.

    Is it all in good fun? You bet, says Thompson-Nowak. But Morris being an educational facility, there will be plenty of opportunities to learn. “We have a lot of trees that people walk right past—massive, stately lindens, really big, old oak trees—and never look at,” he explains. “What better way to highlight these trees than by bringing people right into them under the canopy? So many people don’t look up into trees to really appreciate them, but you almost can’t help but do it when you’re on a swing.”

    There will be signs next to each tree, explaining what it is. Even the seats of the swings present an opportunity for enlightenment. They’re fashioned from trees that have been pruned or fallen in storms, with the name of the tree from which they come carved into them.

    And if you’re up for a cool science lesson, Thompson-Nowak says, try this on for size.

    “Galileo was one of the first to explain the physical properties of a pendulum,” he says. “A swing is a pendulum. And it doesn’t matter how big the person is on the swing, an adult, or a kid, and it doesn’t matter how far back you start your swinging motion. The amount of time it takes to swing back and forth, one rotation, is not affected by weight or how far back you start the swing. The only thing that affects it is the length of the rope. The only time it will change is if you go to a different swing with a different length of rope. So, it’s pretty crazy, but it’s physics in action.”

    Thompson-Nowak might not have been thinking through all the educational implications when he hatched the swing idea. He lives in Fishtown and bikes to work, so he has a lot of time to think. A part of his commute is through the Wissahickon. There are a few rope swings hanging from trees in that area—and no, they’re not supposed to be there—but, still, he realized how much people just love swings. He also worked at Bartram’s Garden, and there’s a swing there. Whether they’re aware of the physics or not—and they’re probably not—people are drawn to swings.

    He introduced the idea to arboretum Director Bill Cullina, and it took off from there. “I said, ‘What do you think about putting in a swing for the summer?’,” Thompson-Nowak recalls. “He said that’s great—but why do one, if we can do 10?”

    It’s a fair bet that those 10 swings (including a porch swing at the Swan Pond) will see a lot of action this summer. “I can’t wait for people to see it,” Thompson-Nowak says. “If you haven’t been on a swing in a while, it’ll bring a smile to your face.”

  • Snacktime Philly, Joy-Filled Band Formed in Response to the Pandemic, Brings the Party to Pastorius

    Snacktime Philly, Joy-Filled Band Formed in Response to the Pandemic, Brings the Party to Pastorius

    Most of the musicians I know found their incomes slashed, if not eliminated, when the pandemic hit home in 2020. Some were able to cobble together some semblance of a normal career by hosting concerts live on Facebook, but others found themselves in desperate straits.

    That was the case for the seven professional musicians who now make up the raucous, joy-filled band called Snacktime Philly. Sousaphone player and Philadelphia public school teacher Sam Gellerstein, who hails from Florida, launched the band—at the time not realizing it might become a going concern—when a friend and co-owner of Mission Taqueria Daniel McLaughlin asked him if he could put together an ensemble to perform at a Friendsgiving. The band later played for an event at Juana Tamale in South Philadelphia. All of this took place pre-Covid.

    And then the pandemic hit. Necessity being the mother of invention, Snacktime’s members took to busking in Rittenhouse Square. They weren’t what you would call an instantaneous hit, but in a short time, people came to look forward to hearing Snacktime bring its distinctive combination of R&B, jazz, popular tunes to the park. And soon, Snacktime became a fixture.

    As the pandemic eased, Snacktime started playing for indoor and outdoor events—including center court at a Sixers game, and the Philadelphia Flower Show this year and last year. The band is about to release an album, on vinyl and streaming.

    Next Wednesday, they’ll bring the party to the Pastorius Park Concert Series.

    Trombonist Michael Spearman recently took time for an interview with Chestnut Hill Insider. Here’s what he had to say.

    Jeff: Were you in on the ground floor of Snacktime Philly?

    Michael: Sam got the band together before the pandemic, and I wasn’t on that gig. And later, he and a couple of other people started busking, in Fishtown, I think. Four or five months after the pandemic started, with no one working, they decided to do another one (open-air concert). He asked me to do it. There were five of us then. The first place we went to was Rittenhouse Square, and people loved it. We saw how much people enjoyed us and how much they loved us. People were just enamored of hearing live music again because they hadn’t heard it in a long time. So, we decided to keep doing it.

    Jeff: Were you able to make money early on? Or were you just playing for the joy of it?

    Michael: At first, we just put some tip buckets out, and we were making maybe $50 apiece, which is pretty good for busking. And we did it because we didn’t have anything else to do. We’re musicians, and we needed to play, and none of us had any income. But then as we kept going, people got used to seeing us there, and we started attracting more and more people. Then we started making more—like, $100 apiece, maybe $200 apiece. If there was a special event or holiday where everyone was outside, maybe even $250 or $300 apiece. So, we would go there (Rittenhouse Square) sometimes three times a week.

    Jeff: At what point did you all discover that Snacktime had become a “thing?”

    Michael: Before it became a thing, there was a conscious effort to make it a thing. It was a month or two in, and people were telling us how much they enjoyed it. And we saw what we were doing because we’re all professional musicians. We’d been gigging before this. We all had experience on live stages, in different venues and event spaces. The reactions we were getting were consistently something that I’ve seen only occasionally, or maybe only every other time when I was performing with different bands. The amount of attention and love we were getting told me early on that, oh, this is a good investment. The potential of this band, it’s rare. So that’s when we started investing. We invested in a sign. We started an Instagram. We started growing our set list and getting more tunes in. Snacktime really became a thing after just a few days on Instagram, and we’d already hit 200 followers (now close to 15,000), and it just kept growing. 

    Jeff: What did you play in the early days, and how has it evolved?

    Michael: We had all played weddings, so we used to do R&B and pop, mostly, like a lot of Stevie Wonder, some Rick James, a lot of Michael Jackson, and Prince. And then, some Justin Bieber or some Drake, Natasha Bedingfield. How has it evolved? Right now, we’ve gotten a lot more style in our tunes, and the set list keeps growing. 

    Jeff: What kinds of performances is the band doing now? Are you still doing the Rittenhouse Square gig?

    Michael: I don’t think we’ll ever stop doing Rittenhouse. That’s where everything started. Right now, we’re doing a lot of private events, a lot more corporate. We started by busking in restaurants, but as we progressed, we kept getting requests for higher-paying gigs. And we’re still doing restaurants. We’re doing festivals. Last year, we did the Firefly Festival. 

    Jeff: What are your influences at this point? 

    Michael: Even if just one of our members likes a certain type of music, like ‘80s, black music or R&B, we just research them. Even then, we’ll go into Bon Jovi, Snarky Puppy, some New Orleans brass bands, Philadelphia soul. We study all of that. Prince is probably the biggest influence on the band. Everyone loves Prince. 

    Jeff: What does playing in Snacktime do for you?

    Michael: Oh, man, it gives me elation. We’re playing with great musicians when we’re not playing with Snacktime, but there’s something about Snacktime where someone gives a look or moves a hand, and everyone knows exactly where we’re going. We know exactly where we’re ending. Someone can play a little line, maybe just a quick two-second thing, and we know what song we’re going to play, just based on that. Honestly, it’s the band I’ve always dreamed of playing with. It feels amazing.

    The concert starts at 7:30 p.m. in the park, a couple of blocks west of Germantown Avenue, at Millman Street. It’s free.