It Happened Last Night: The Philadelphia Orchestra’s First-Ever Pride Concert

Here’s what happens when a drag queen meets a symphony.

a scene from the Philadelphia Orchestra Pride Concert

A scene from the Philadelphia Orchestra Pride Concert / Photography by Walden Green

There was a special kind of celebratory energy in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall on Thursday night.

The Philadelphia Orchestra was decked out not in their usual head-to-toe black, but in a colorful assortment of pastel and metallic lamé shirts. They were joined by the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus, whose wardrobe formed a whole rainbow spectrum. This wasn’t another night at the symphony; it was the Philadelphia Orchestra’s inaugural Pride Concert, completely free and open to the public.

This wasn’t your usual Philadelphia Orchestra crowd either — not rowdier per se, but more energized, younger, and dare I say, gayer than the usual patrons. They clapped louder too, and some of the loudest applause was reserved for the concert’s host: grande dame drag queen and chanteuse Martha Graham Cracker. It was her voice that boomed over the loudspeaker, announcing that “as this is not the state of Florida, please say the word ‘gay’ as much, as loudly, and as frequently as you want.”

philadelphia orchestra pride concert attendee esadiva maven

Philadelphia Orchestra Pride Concert attendee EsaDiva Maven

But before the doors to the auditorium opened, I wandered around the lobby to chat with some of the night’s best dressed. EsaDiva Maven caught my eye from across the room in an all-rainbow ensemble, including sandals, earrings, pleated skirt, and even her umbrella.

“I thought this would be a great event, especially because it’s free, to go out and experience the orchestra, especially for those who haven’t experienced it before, and what better day to do it than on the second day of Pride,” Maven told me.

philadelphia orchestra pride concert attendees shannon and riley

Philadelphia Orchestra Pride Concert attendees Shannon and Riley

Meanwhile, I found Riley, showing off a rainbow “Love Wins” t-shirt, and Riley’s mom Shannon in a corner examining the Kimmel Center’s upcoming programming calendar. Riley was at the Philadelphia Orchestra Pride Concert “because it’s a Pride event and I’m very, very gay.” And Shannon? “I’m here for both a love of music and my children,” she said.

In his opening speech, Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin — in a two-wrongs-making-a-right combo of bleach-blond hair and pink high tops — announced that the night would be a celebration of LGBTQ+ history. There were crescendos and euphoric moments galore. A highlight of the Philadelphia Orchestra Pride Concert was Corigliano’s “Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra” from The Red Violin, featuring violinist Blake Pouliot; Nézet-Séguin joked that, since it was a piece by an out gay composer, conducted by an out gay conductor, it only made sense that they “chose an out gay performer.”

Pouliot could’ve easily played the brooding violin prodigy, but his performance was electric. He writhed around like a man possessed, growling, grimacing, and even audibly spitting on the stage. It was angry, it was passionate, and it was awesome.

Fan photo by Stephanie Haynes

Martha, though, was the crowd favorite of the evening from the moment she set foot on that stage, sporting a Marie Antoinette bouffant capped off with a gravity-defying ostrich feather. She shamelessly flirted with the conductor, led the crowd in a fun call-and-response (watch here) about the history of gay rights in Philadelphia and, in the concert’s most emotional moment, performed a stunning rendition of the song Judy Garland made famous: “Over the Rainbow.” It was, all at once, a touching tribute to the pain and struggle it took to get here, a reminder of the work that’s still to be done, and a perfect encapsulation of the hope that art like the kind on display last night can inspire in queer people. In all of us, really.

Below, Martha Graham Cracker singing “Over the Rainbow” at the Philadelphia Orchestra Pride Concert.