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Chu harmonizes with The Philadelphia Orchestra

A Hawthorne resident and Philadelphia Orchestra musician said the upcoming season will be one to remember.

By Jess Fuerst
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 8, 2012

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Photo by Greg Bezanis

As a viola player in the Philadelphia Orchestra, Jonathan Chu, of 11th and Fitzwater streets, is living his dream.

“It’s tons of fun. It’s my dream job. They are such a great group. We have great conductors and guest artists. I get to play great music. It’s an awesome job,” Chu said.

The 31-year-old who just welcomed his second child is looking forward to the upcoming season that promises a new chapter for the recently plagued ensemble, which emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy months before the October premiere of its 113th season.

“The music director is like the head honcho, they call the artistic shots. We haven’t had one for two years,” Chu said. “Now that we have a person — and on top of it, this guy is young, which is rare — it’ll make a really big difference. [Yannick Nézet-Séguin] is awesome. We are really excited to play for him.”

This is Yannick’s inaugural season in the role, and there is an extensive lineup of performances with multiple guest conductors to add to the novel sound, including The Stokowski Legacy, named for the ensemble’s third director, Leopold Stokowski, who served for about three decades, the performance runs tonight through Saturday at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. Part of the origin of this year’s program stemmed from the many talented people that were vying for the job.

“The thing with this year is before we got a music director we tried out a bunch of people, especially younger people,” Chu, who is in his fourth season with the orchestra, said. “Some happened to be more energetic and dynamic, so we liked to play with them. A bunch are coming for two weeks at a time, which is kind of rare. Normally people come for one week.”

Chu advised to look out on the schedule for two-week stays, as those promise to be a great marriage between the conductor and the group of musicians. Beyond that, however, the musician said he defers to the more seasoned among the orchestra members to judge the quality of the current slate.

“I’ve only be around a bit, but the older members say it’s something really special. The Philadelphia Orchestra is sounding better than ever,” he said. “People should come out. It’s the same as going to support a hometown team. You know that you are seeing world-class stuff.”

Chu, a classical musician who followed a slightly untraditional path, also breaks it down for the uninitiated among the masses.

“Another reason to see the Philadelphia Orchestra is it’s really one of the greatest ensembles. If the Phillies are fielding a great team, it’s worth coming out to see [Roy] Halladay pitch a gem. It’s like seeing a no-hitter. It’s really special,” he said.

In upstate New York, a young Chu had his first taste of classical music from, ironically, his current employer.

“I’m from the Albany area and the [Philadelphia] Orchestra has a summer residency in Saratoga Springs,” Chu said. “There is a decent classical music scene in the Albany area. I learned to play the violin when I was 4. In the summers I’d go here in Philly. I remember sitting on the lawn outdoors at The Mann [Center for the Performing Arts] and I’d hear the orchestra soloists and they sounded really great.”

Chu trained on the violin, and from time to time on the trombone. While he excelled at his hobby, it was not an all-consuming one.

“I wasn’t sure. I enjoyed playing, which is basically the reason I went [to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.]. There were other schools I applied to to see what else was out there. I ended up doing a double major in [music and] economics, which has come in a little bit handy, but it was mostly interesting,” he said.

With a bachelor’s in hand by 2003, Chu had decided to pursue a career as a classical musician. His next round of training took him to New York City, where he attended The Julliard School. Professionally, he relocated in ’06 to join the St. Louis Symphony, but it wasn’t what he wanted.

“It wasn’t really right for me at that time in my life, being a single guy so far away from my family,” Chu, who now lives with his wife and two children, a 2- and 18-month-old, said. “New York is an awesome scene, I came to Philly in 2008 and had one audition.”

The audition process, as it is with most orchestras, involved a series of blind auditions where he played selections from works he was told to prepare in the months prior. Chu said it is very stressful, but when it works out, it can be exciting.

“It’s one of the few jobs, if not the only, where it’s really blind … I survived the gauntlet. I never thought I’d be in Philly. It’s one of the best orchestras in the world,” Chu, who plays the viola in the orchestra, said. “That sounds a bit like I’m patting myself on the back or something, but it’s definitely in the top five in the country and I’d say in the world. It’s such a fun group to play with.”

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