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Unticketed, unexpected musical bliss in Philadelphia

A department store and an Italian diner bring classical music into public spaces

Fred Haas performing at Macy’s Christmas Light Show
Fred Haas performing at Macy’s Christmas Light Show (Photo: Getty Images)

On a recent trip to Philadelphia, like most visitors, I spent my time queuing to see the famed Liberty Bell at the Independence Hall and taking selfies with actor Sylvester Stallone’s statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art—this is where he famously ran up the majestic flight of stairs for Rocky Balboa.

But thanks to pointers from my newfound friend, the 70-year-old artist Ed, painting at his open-air studio sectioned off the Rittenhouse public park sidewalk, I wound up visiting a mall and a restaurant for two unexpected classical music performances that were, in Ed’s wise words, “blissful music".

The Grand Court.
The Grand Court. (Photo: Alamy)

The first place he sent me to was Macy’s Center City, located on three floors of a massive Florentine-style building on Market Street. It used to be the John Wanamaker Department Store, which opened in 1911 and was one of the first department stores in the US. Its Grand Court, a massive atrium on the ground floor of the 12-storey building, is home to one of Philly’s oldest and famous residents: The Eagle. It is an imposing 2,500-pound bronze sculpture and “Meet me at the Eagle" is still what friends tell each other when fixing to meet up.

It was while browsing in the stores that I heard the first rousing notes of classical music. They swelled and dipped, filling the Grand Court with a profoundness that I thought could only be the work of a large orchestra. But they came from a single organ—the world’s largest functioning concert organ, with 28,750 pipes. The smallest pipe is a quarter of an inch long, while the longest measures 32ft. The pipes are hidden behind an ornate golden façade on one of the Grand Court’s walls.

After the 45-minute concert, interested shoppers can step into the massive console chamber on the first floor to chat with the performer. So far, since 1911, only four organists have held the title of Grant Court Organist. Currently it is Peter Richard Conte, who has decades of experience. On the day I visited, Conte’s assistant, Fred Haas, was playing. Using two levels of foot controls and a complex jukebox-like console, he played compositions by Bach, Mozart and other composers.

At the console, Haas pointed out the six ivory keyboards, 729 colour-coded stop tablets, 168 piston buttons under the keyboards and 42 foot controls. Every organist has to patiently preset his selections to activate particular instruments, playing to the accompaniment of a choir, string instruments, percussion, chimes and more. In spite of the Grand Court’s high ceiling and open space, the acoustics are perfect and hearing this heroic instrument in the ordinary setting of a mall is surreal. Understandably, the Wanamaker Organ is a national landmark currently valued at over $57 million (around 405 crore). Ticketed concerts take place on special days.

The mall visit was followed by dinner at The Victor Cafe, a family-owned Italian restaurant open since 1918. My Uber dropped me at the café, its windows casting pools of light on the quiet, residential Dickinson Street. Inside, the bright space was filled with tables decked with chequered red and white cloth, while the walls were covered with black and white autographed photographs of opera singers from around the world. On a mantle above the front door was a life-size replica of the dog Nipper, the mascot of the record label HMV (His Master’s Voice).

It was easy to imagine Luciano Pavarotti dining here after performing with the Opera Philadelphia close by (true story!). But that isn’t why this café is known as the “music lovers’ rendezvous". Every 20 minutes, one of the waitstaff rings a bell announcing a performance, going on to perform an aria with all the élan of an opera singer. All members of the waitstaff are opera singers. For instance, Erin Alcorn performs for Opera Philadelphia and has sung at Carnegie Hall in New York City. She told me that there are about 35 singers on the staff who are all classically trained vocalists, “either currently at school or with a degree in vocal performance". The variety of performances is stunning, from Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff or Mozart’s Magic Flute to theatre songs such as If I Loved You from Carousel to I Could Have Danced All Night from My Fair Lady.

The Victor, as the café is commonly referred to, is the legacy of an Italian immigrant named John DiStefano. His first job in Philadelphia was as a waiter at a restaurant frequented by operatic singers. Soon, he opened a gramophone and record shop, which he later converted into the Victor Café. Diners would eat to opera music played from his collection of records. In 1979, years after his sons took over the café, a young waiter who was an opera student sang for the diners, kicking off a tradition that continues today. “The café gives us all a flexible job while we are pursuing a life in music," Alcorn said. “It is a great way to practise entertaining people and singing in front of strangers."

Meanwhile, a young singer explained a scene where her character sings about the trilling birds and babbling brooks and then proceeded to sing the cheery aria. While she sang, the food was forgotten. After the applause died down, diners started eating again. The food, all Italian cuisine, was truly good. But food isn’t the point of The Victor. It’s the music that happens there, every 20 minutes.

Jayanthi Madhukar is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru.

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