Flowering Trees Were Calling Me: A Stroll Through Chestnut Hill

On April 9 of this our present year, I went out in search of signs of spring, which was damn well taking its time in arriving. Though I didn’t come up empty-handed, the cupboard indeed was awfully bare. Naturally, having donned the hat of writer a few years ago, I wrote about the expedition, publishing the story six days later.

In the interim, however, nature began bubbling halfway decently in my region. To wit, two or three days after the 9th I began to spot some flowering trees in bloom. Finally! Spring was coming out from behind the curtains.

Now, I had no particular plans to place a second springtime-related opus into the ethers of cyberspace in 2018. Believe me, more than enough of those bad boys are already up there. But it turns out that I couldn’t resist. Last week’s Monday clinched the decision for me. Conditions-wise the day was ideal. The skies were so blue, my knees went weak looking at them. The temperature was 68°F (20°C), one of my favorite numbers on the dial because it meant that if a stroll around town would cause me to break a sweat, the sweat would flow only minimally. Ergo, a stroll was in order. But where to? I hadn’t been in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia for a while. It’s a large, beautiful area, countrified and quaint and pretty hip. A village unto itself in effect, Chestnut Hill is almost always a good place to pass your time in.

Callery pear tree

At about 2:00 PM I jumped into my trusty 2001 Honda Civic. Eight miles later I was in Chestnut Hill. I was psyched for the impending walk. And I knew what my focus would be, photographically anyway. While enjoying the pleasures of the day I, for no brilliant reason, would take pictures mostly of flowering trees.

Saucer magnolia tree

I spent an hour and a half in Chestnut Hill, walking along all nice and relaxed. Everything was quite peaceful. I heard but one barking dog, unlike in my suburban nook where barks are as common as dandelions. And though lots of cars were on the roads, not a one of their drivers honked within my range of hearing during my excursion. I don’t know, maybe Chestnut Hill is a magnet for good quality canines and humans.

Getting back to spring, it didn’t take long for me to conclude that it had a long way to go. I mean, 90% of the non-flowering deciduous trees (maples, oaks, whatever) had no leaves on them whatsoever, though the budding process was under way.

But the flowering trees were another story. Though there weren’t as many of them as I’d have liked to see (and I assume that all members of the flowering varieties were in fact blooming), there were enough. And I took a good look at every one I passed. Who can resist gentle creations aglow in creamy whites, pretty pinks and other reddish shades? Not me.

Cherry trees on W. Southampton Ave., looking west
Cherry trees on W. Southampton Ave., looking east

One block in particular was a wonderland of sorts. I speak of W. Southampton Avenue. I was heading downhill on Germantown Avenue, the steeply sloped main drag filled with clothing boutiques and restaurants and other shops, when a marvelous mass of white blossoms caught my eye. They were attached to a series of cherry trees that occupy a good bit of W. Southampton, a residential block. I crossed Germantown Avenue and dove into the milky white scene. From Germantown Avenue I hadn’t noticed it, what with my strong case of myopia, but a petal storm was going on. Dropping from the trees in big numbers, petals were floating through the air rhapsodically. Man, it was beautiful. I was all set to lay myself down on the sidewalk and go blissful. But then I remembered that I’m not so good at going blissful. Shit, I knew I should have enrolled in a Zen Buddhism program years ago! You live and you learn. Sometimes.

Well, I snapped some pictures of W. Southampton, hoping like crazy that I’d capture some mid-air petals. If you look closely at the photos that I’ve included you’ll see a few. They and their siblings were a sight.

Saucer magnolia tree

Ah, the mystery of petals. Towards the end of my walk I found myself ambling along a stretch of sidewalk covered with pink ones. They had fallen from a saucer magnolia tree, which nevertheless was still grandly laden with flowers. The next day, at home, I gave a bit of thought to those and the other petals that I’d encountered in Chestnut Hill. So many already were off their trees, even though the trees had been in blossom for less, probably, than two weeks. Seems a shame that the great flowering-tree show comes and goes as quickly as it does. If its design had been left up to me, I’d have commanded that it last for two months or more. A magnificent extravaganza, it’s worthy of that, without question.

Not long after stepping through the carpet of magnolia petals, I found myself back on the block where I’d parked my old Civic. I liked the way my car looked, demure and cute despite the large blotches on its trunk and roof, as it waited patiently for me in front of a small, adorable cherry tree. The tree’s bone-white blossoms contrasted righteously with the Honda’s deep green paint. A photograph of the scene cried out to be taken. A few minutes later I got into the Honda and made my way back to the burbs. A flowery excursion had come to its end.

P.S. I’m indebted to Karen Flick, landscape manager at Philadelphia’s Awbury Arboretum. I’m a nincompoop when it comes to flora. I sent some of my photos to her, and she identified the trees for me.

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The Music Biz And I

A typical concert scene at beautiful Pastorius Park.
A typical concert scene at beautiful Pastorius Park.

On a recent morning, the day’s threatening skies put me in mind of the music business mini-career that I enjoyed till not long ago. It was with the Pastorius Park Free Summer Concerts Series, in Philadelphia’s lovely and small townish Chestnut Hill neighborhood. For seven summers, the first two as a general helper and the following five as a co-organizer, I was part of a fine endeavor. My run ended in July 2014 with that summer’s final concert. Bad weather, or the prediction thereof, were among the reasons that I decided to step down. With rain a possibility for many concert evenings, I and another co-organizer often would find ourselves phoning back and forth hours before showtime, agonizing over whether or not to move the music indoors to our rain location, a school auditorium a mile from the park. It usually was a tricky matter. Sometimes we opted for inside and the rains never came. At least twice we stayed at bucolic Pastorius Park and downpours cancelled or prematurely ended the night’s entertainment. My constitution wasn’t strong enough to laugh along with the rain gods. Weather aside, though, the Pastorius Park segment of my life was terrific overall.

In 2008, knowing that I was approaching the end of my 30+ year tenure on the payroll of Pennsylvania government, I was looking around for a part-time activity that involved my main interest. Music. For 40 years I had been quite the music junkie, listening to albums and radio at home for hours on end, taking in shows at a wide variety of venues in the Philadelphia area and beyond. It had recently dawned on me that the next phase of my life might be pretty awesome if I could become more than an audience member by getting inside the music scene  But how would it be possible to find entry? I knew nobody in the biz and had never worked in music in any capacity whatsoever. Plus, I was not too far away from Medicare age. I figured that my chances weren’t overly bright. And then, to my delight and astonishment, a door opened.

Now, the music venture I became involved with wasn’t exactly Columbia Records or Live Nation Entertainment. The Pastorius Park series is low key and homey, which was fine with me. It runs under the gentle aegis of Chestnut Hill Community Association, an agency that aims for its community’s betterment. Volunteers are central to the series because the modest Pastorius budget has room for payments to musicians and audio crew, but not much more. As first a helper and later an organizer, I fell into the unpaid pool. That was fine with me too. I was more than happy just to be part of the process.

I went to my first Pastorius Park concert in summer 2007. On stage was Scythian, a rocking Celtic group that drove the crowd wild. This was before the notion of working in the music biz had crossed my mind. The next year, though, trying to figure out where my musical dreams possibly might come partially true, I dialed Chestnut Hill Community Association and was put in touch with one of the Pastorius Park organizers, Janine. She welcomed my offer to help. Next thing I knew I was at a planning meeting for 2008’s season. And a few months after that I was at the concerts themselves, setting up tables and chairs, helping to unload and load audio equipment, collecting concert donations from the audiences during intermissions. My energy seemed to swell on concert dates. I was having a wonderful time. The door had opened.

The door opened even more in early 2010 when one of the organizers, the fellow who scheduled and booked the acts, no longer had the time to continue his duties. He and Janine asked me to replace him. Me? Book acts? Negotiate contracts? Those for me were uncharted waters. Gulp, gulp. I said OK, I’ll do my best. And I was on my way. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my new position was close to being my dream job. There I was, a music lover given the keys from out of the blue to curate a small but well-regarded music series.

I had fun working with my organizing partners, Janine for the first two years and Julie for the next three, and with the other volunteers. I enjoyed chatting with the musicians before and after the shows. And I had a major blast scheduling each summer’s string of seven Wednesday evening concerts. In 2010 I reached past the Philadelphia area to hire two acts from afar, including, incredibly, Graham Parker. His solo show packed the park maybe tighter than ever before or since. But for the next four years I decided to stick entirely with artists from the Philadelphia region’s highly fertile musical ground. I liked the idea of supporting its progeny.

If I hadn’t known it before, one thing became very apparent to me during my days as an organizer. To wit, there are an astonishing number of excellent musical acts based in the Greater Philadelphia area, and many of the little-known local performers are as good or better than many who make big noise in the mass marketplace. Success is a matter of luck, timing, backing, perseverance, who knows what. A few of the Philadelphia region’s performers whom I booked for Pastorius Park had found some degree of national and worldwide acclaim, folks such as singer-songwriters Jeffrey Gaines and Mutlu, and Celtic music greats RUNA. But the rest were talented bands on the lower rungs of success’s ladder. Some of them put on performances as enchanting as you’d ever hope to see.

Cheers Elephant and some young fans at Pastorius Park in July 2011. Photo by Kevin Kennedy
Cheers Elephant and some young fans at Pastorius Park in July 2011.
Photo by Kevin Kennedy

For instance: I’ve never been to a show like the one in 2011 involving Cheers Elephant, a pop psychedelic rock outfit with loud guitars and a free-as-a-bird and charismatic lead singer, Derek Krzywicki. Cheers Elephant’s music was magic to the ears of many youngsters who had come to the park with their parents. During the band’s second set, played under darkening skies, many kids aged five to 15 left the grassy seating areas and, seemingly magnetized by Elephant’s electric energy, made their way to, indeed onto the stage, which sat beneath a grove of tall trees. Bouncing and shimmying to the band’s powerful and catchy beats, they covered the stage, pushed the musicians onward and upward, in fact had the musicians mesmerized. The scene was surreal and transfixing.

Venissa Santi and her band at Pastorius Park in July 2014.
Venissa Santi and her band at Pastorius Park in July 2014.

And in 2014, Venissa Santi brought her Cuban-flavored jazz esthetic to the park. I’d hired Venissa once before for Pastorius Park, and had also seen her perform at another concert series. Last year, though, she and her band rose to a level I hadn’t known was in their command. Early in Santi’s first set my mind was captured. The music was complex yet malleable, expanding and contracting like strong bands of rubber. Venissa’s intimate and pitch-perfect vocals intertwined with the chordal onrushes of Tom Lawton’s piano, the now-I’m-here-now-I’m-there notes from Madison Rast’s bass, and the melodic assymetrical patterns of Francois Zayas’s drums. This, I thought, was music parallel to that of Miles Davis’s famed 1960s quintet. Was I imagining things? I don’t think so. Did others in the audience hear the music as I did? I can’t say for certain. But judging from their tremendous applause I’d guess yes.

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