For once, Philadelphia did something right.
Back in the early aughts, the city’s Water Department was faced with the task of constructing a 4-million gallon, federally mandated stormwater retention tank on the Schuylkill River in Manayunk. The community turned out en masse to recommend ways of integrating the project into the neighborhood, and after 10 years of planning construction, the Venice Island Performing Arts and Recreation Center opened in 2014. The tank is operational, but well-camouflaged by an outdoor basketball court. The buildings, which include a pumping station, have won awards for their environmentally friendly design, and a 250-seat theater provides musicians with a friendly environment as well.
Keyboard artists Katarzyna Salwinski and Rollin Wilber, who will present a concert of music for two pianos at Venice Island Nov. 18, recently gave the hall a snap inspection ― quite literally, since snapping their fingers was part of the test ― and pronounced themselves satisfied. They also believe the amphitheater-style seating, which places the audience above the stage, will add an exciting visual element to the program by giving listeners a direct view into the workings of their instruments.
“I think it’s one of the best halls for our requirements,” Salwinski said Oct. 23 at Opus Piano, the music showroom she and her husband own in Roxborough. “It’s a small venue, and it’s just perfect for our concerts because we tend to try to recreate a more intimate atmosphere. But it has all the aspects of a great modern concert hall.”
Salwinski and Wilber are co-founders of the Fine Art Music Company and longtime residents of Manayunk, and although the Nov. 18 concert will be their first at Venice Island, it will not be the first time they have performed for their neighbors. In 2010, in honor of Chopin’s 200th birthday, they hosted a salon at Wilber’s home that attracted upwards of 150 people.
“It was too many really to keep track of ― more than we almost can swing at our venues, which is frustrating,” Wilber said with a laugh. “They really poured in the door. It was quite fun.”
The experience led to more salons and ultimately to the creation of Fine Art Music, which is now in its fourth season. The ensemble, consisting of Salwinksi, Wilber and a rotating roster of guest musicians, usually performs at the Ethical Society and Ivy Hall in Philadelphia, and the Manayunk appearance, Wilber said, will be like coming “full around home.”
“We tried to get into Venice Island last year, so we’ve been going after this for a year, a year and a half, actually,” he added. “It seems to be a busy venue, according to what they say … So if we like this, and it works, and we’re all happy about it, we want to continue and maybe rent it one or two or three times the following season, and make it part of something regular we do. So this is kind of the test case.”
The Nov. 18 program will include Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 2, in the performers’ opinion the single greatest work in the two-piano repertoire, and it will end with a holiday treat: Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” Suite. While much of the original ballet’s enormous charm derives from its colorful orchestration, Salwinki and Wilber said nothing has been lost in the reduction they’ll be playing. The piano version brings out the clarity of the lines, revealing just how masterfully the music is constructed.
“We’re discovering on the piano the beauty and the elements of the details,” Wilber said. “You can hear the orchestra as you’re doing it. It’s there. You hear the flutes. You hear the violins. You hear all the orchestration.”
“It’s truly a wonderful arrangement,” Salwinksi added.