First-ever Philadelphia Organ Festival shows classical music in a new light

Philadelphia Organ Festival
Amanda Mole is pictured.

A new event is coming to the City of Brotherly Love, and with it, locals can discover the region’s trove of historic pipe organs in some of the area’s most scenic venues. The first-ever Philadelphia Organ Festival will be in full swing from March 15 to 23, and tickets are currently on sale for the inaugural activation.

“This is the first time we’re doing something like this in Philadelphia,” says Artistic Director John Walthausen. “I think our big artistic goal in this is to help people experience these instruments in new ways with programming that they might not hear on a Sunday morning going to church—including some avant-garde stuff, some stuff with movies that is going to be really cool, and a lot featuring the organ played with other instruments, which we don’t get to hear all that much.”

As a release notes, Philadelphia-based Partners for Sacred Places is the producer of the festival, but there are some collaborations with several of the area’s arts and culture institutions as well, including The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Marian Anderson Historical Society, Artcinia, The Crossing, and Opera Philadelphia. All of the organizations have come together to help introduce this music to audiences in a new way.

What to expect from the inaugural Philadelphia Organ Festival

Philadelphia Organ Festival
Rodeph Shalom Synagogue is pictured. PROVIDED/ PHILADELPHIA ORGAN FESTIVAL

“It’s a totality of sound,” says Walthausen when describing what makes this particular type of music stand out. “A lot of the organs that we’re going to hear during this festival are about as big as a Philadelphia rowhome. They take up so much space and they involve so many moving parts [that] they can fill a big space in a way that no other single instrument can.”

The size and capacity of the instruments meant the organizers of the festival also had to look for specific stipulations when looking for venues.

“We looked for interesting spaces and really wanted to highlight Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. I myself live in West Philadelphia and I do a lot of my work in Germantown, and I think a lot of Philadelphia’s flavors you find outside of the center of the city. We really wanted to show these real treasures, these national treasures that are in places where people live,” explains Walthausen.

The Philadelphia Organ Festival will hold concerts at places like the Girard College Chapel, St. Luke’s Germantown, Tindley Temple, Rodeph Shalom, Longwood Gardens, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and more.

“There’s a lot that I’m really excited about. One concert that I’m really excited for is Sunday night’s concert at the Tinsley Temple in South Philadelphia. I think this concert is going to bring together so many facets of Philadelphia history,” continues Walthausen. “In this concert, we’re celebrating the legacy of Marian Anderson, who is one of Philadelphia’s most famous classical musicians. She’s famous both for her incredible talent, but also, for her incredible work in the Civil Rights Movement.”

As Walthausen describes, the festival will also hold opportunities for film lovers. One will feature organist Matt Glandorf who will be making up a score for a silent film on the spot to help tell the story through music. Another great pick comes from opening night, which the artistic director says is an ideal option for those new to the instrument.

Philadelphia Organ Festival

“For someone who’s never been to an organ concert or maybe has never been to a classical music concert, I would say come join us on opening night. Girard College is such an amazing place and Chelsea Chen, who’s our opening night performer, is incredible. She’ll be joined by a full team of brass players playing music that’s super accessible and very powerful,” Walthausen says. “It’ll be a really powerful program and I’d say a great concert to bring kids to because you’ll see so many different instruments on stage for other types of audiences.”

“I would also add that at Rodeph Shalom, we’re doing another movie that’s going to be totally different. The score is written out, but it’s for a big ensemble of musicians, mostly Philadelphia orchestra players, with organ and electric guitar. I think for people with a really adventurous spirit, this is absolutely the show for them.”

The festival’s inspired programs showcase the organ as a partner in music of many styles and eras, in pairings with vocalists, period instruments, and in rarely-heard collaborations with percussion and contemporary music ensembles, the release notes. Tickets ($30) are currently on sale (discounted rates will be offered to students and seniors), as are festival packages, which give Philadelphians access to all eight concerts for a single rate.

Philadelphia Organ Festival

“I think that this is a really great festival for any Philly person who loves their city. People who live[here] have so many opportunities walking around the city to see extraordinary buildings, including a lot of extraordinary churches, houses of worship and schools. But we don’t always get to go inside and we don’t necessarily always get to hear this incredible piece of musical heritage that might be hiding inside,” finishes Walthausen. “So whether or not you’re a committed organ fan, or whether or not you necessarily think of yourself as a classical music lover, this is a great way to see and hear Philly in a different way.”

To find tickets and more information for the Philadelphia Organ Festival, visit