Kimmel holiday concert helps 2 performers fulfill wish

December 21, 2016 GMT

The Philadelphia Orchestra was joined by two musical sensations during its annual holiday concert at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in South Philadelphia on Saturday.

The sold-out event featured musical selections from soprano Alison Buchanan who made her Philadelphia Orchestra debut during the concert.

“I’m from England originally and I came over in the ’90s to study at the Curtis Institute, which is in Rittenhouse Square, and we would always get tickets to see the Philadelphia Orchestra; and I was, like, ‘One day I want to sing with them.’ ” said Buchanan.

“I did a few little things with the Philadelphia Opera many years ago, but this was on my bucket list,” she said.


Well she can scratch that item off her list.

Buchanan’s musical performances are vast and include doing Vaughan Williams’ “A Sea Symphony” with the York Symphony Orchestra and being a soloist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

While America has a number of African Americans performing opera, for Buchanan, this was not the case growing up in England.

“When I started, I thought I was going to be the pioneer — the only person of color in England to sing opera,” she said. “I just didn’t know anyone. I had this talent and this support system which gave me the opportunity for paid lessons and things but I really didn’t see anyone who looked like me.”

It was during a prestigious production of “Porgy and Bess” at a theater in England where she would see signs of change.

“I was the youngest person ever hired to sing in the chorus for that production and I arrived there and there was 60 people who looked like me. Some from America, some from England and that was very encouraging,” Buchanan recalled.

That was 1986 and the young Buchanan took the opportunity to pick the brains of the American singers to inquire about which schools of music were best in preparing her for a professional career in the field.

“It came down to three: the Juilliard School of music; Indiana University, [which] has a great music department; and then there was the Curtis Institute,” she said.

“So, like Goldie Locks and the three Bears, I said Juilliard seemed to political, Indiana seemed to big, Curtis sounds perfect. So I determined that when I was ready I would come to Curtis and audition.”

Easier said than done.

The Curtis Institute of Music has tough auditions and admission requirements, but Buchanan — bags in hand and visions of singing in her head — relocated to Philadelphia and was accepted at the 92-year-old performing arts school at 1726 Locust St.


“That was really pivotal, coming to Philadelphia, studying at Curtis and having access to the best of the best,” said Buchanan.

Since those early years, Buchanan has performed around the world but Saturday’s performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra has always been her dream.

Thomas Wilkins was guest conductor at the holiday concert whose wit and charm kept the audience engaged and laughing throughout.

“What I love about it is that it’s a celebration of community with both the people on the stage and the people in the audience,” said Wilkins, who has been conducting since 1982 and has served as music director of the Omaha Symphony Orchestra since 2005.

Wilkins said that the warm responses manifested through applause, standing ovations and laughter made him feel welcomed and that he made the right career choice.

“It makes me feel as if this is God’s calling on my life and I’m just trying to be obedient, trying to be a good conduit,” he said.

At the conclusion of the concert, Wilkins had three wishes for the audience.

“It was a wish that the audience would receive three gifts: the gift of grace, the gift of mercy — even if they don’t deserve it — and the gift of peace. As it happens, the best things in life aren’t things,” he said.

Among those attending the concert was Terrence Wilson is a concert pianist who describes himself as a colleague of Buchanan’s.

“Hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra is both a healing and a homecoming because I grew up on the Philadelphia Orchestras recordings,” he said.

It was the Philadelphia Orchestra that gave Wilson his orchestral debut and launched his career.

“I won’t say how many years ago that was,” said Wilson with a laugh.

What he would say: that it was a pleasure to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra perform as well as to spend time with his fellow performers.