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Philadelphia Freedom Festival

A seven month festival celebration of Philadelphia's 19th-century African-American civil rights pioneer, Octavius Catto.

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Posted on August 27, 2014 by The Mann Center for the Performing Arts

The Mann’s Philadelphia Freedom Festival drew to a close with two final events last month: the central Gospel Meets Symphony concert, presented at the Mann on July 19, and a young people’s concert, presented on July 28.

Gospel Meets Symphony, the festival’s signature event, showcased the world premiere of The Passion of Octavius Catto, a work inspired by the historical Catto’s life and achievements and commissioned by the Mann from Philadelphia classical and jazz composer Uri Caine. The piece was performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra, soprano Barbara Walker, and a Philadelphia Freedom Festival Community Choir composed of nearly 200 community members. Orchestra and Choir also performed a trilogy of traditional spirituals arranged by Festival Artistic Director Rev. Nolan Williams, Jr., and they accompanied the legendary gospel star Marvin Sapp in a selection of such hits as “Never Would Have Made It.” It was truly an unforgettable evening, presented completely free of charge and attended by an estimated 7,200 people.

In a review, the Philadelphia Inquirer noted that The Passion of Octavius Catto “had the bounce of gospel, the derring-do of jazz and blues, and enough flaming dissonance to conjure up the difficulties in Catto’s amazing life…The amazing thing was how much life and vitality was conveyed in the music. The sold-out audience…exulted to the gospel-drenched importuning of ‘We Know No East nor West,’ drawn from a Catto speech on voting rights.” Audience members, in post-concert surveys, overwhelmingly rated the concert “extremely enjoyable” and said things like, “The performance was thrilling. The information on O.V. Catto was exceptional!” and “Please consider doing this again. I ESPECIALLY loved the history lesson.” Gospel Meets Symphony successfully drew a new and diverse audience to the Mann, for many of whom the concert was their first orchestral experience.

All together, an estimated 17,000 people of all ages attended the Philadelphia Freedom Festival’s twelve events over the course of six months. More than 100 community partners—including artists, ensembles, churches, community organizations, and individuals—played key roles in the project. The festival was an unqualified success, and the Mann is deeply grateful to the many participants and supporters, including New Music USA, who made the project possible. Thank you!

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Master Class with Uri Caine: Freedom of Composition

Posted on June 10, 2014 by The Mann Center for the Performing Arts

At the heart of the Philadelphia Freedom Festival lies a new commissioned work from Philadelphia classical and jazz composer Uri Caine. Caine’s composition, The Passion of Octavius Catto, tells the story of 19th-century Philadelphian and African American Octavius V. Catto, who waged a battle for civil rights a full century before the Civil Rights movement as we know it. This past April, as part of the Festival, a small group of music composition students from the Curtis Institute of Music participated in a Master Class and Meet the Artist session with Uri Caine. The students had the chance to ask questions and learn from the composer, who shared excerpts from his new work. Caine’s Passion will have its world premiere by The Philadelphia Orchestra on July 19 in a free public concert at the Mann. Come join us! It promises to be a spectacular evening.

The Octavius Catto Story: A Philadelphia Freedom Fighter

Posted on June 4, 2014 by The Mann Center for the Performing Arts

How do you tell the inspiring story of Octavius V. Catto through dance? The Rock School for Education in Philadelphia has an answer. The Mann partnered with the Rock School to create a short ballet piece, “Catto at the Bat,” that highlights how Catto took his fight for civil rights to the 19th-century ball field as a founder and player for the Pythians, Philadelphia’s first black baseball club. The dance, presented this spring along with an educational curriculum in four Philadelphia schools to commemorate Black History—marked the start of the Philadelphia Freedom Festival. “Catto at the Bat” is an exciting and refreshing way to encourage new youthful audiences to connect with history and the performing arts. Check out this video of the performance.


With the goal of attracting new audiences and growing deep and meaningful relationships across our community the Mann Center for the Performing Arts will present the Philadelphia Freedom Festival, a seven-month project inspired by the story of Philadelphia’s 19th-century African-American civil rights pioneer, Octavius Catto, and commemorating the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  The centerpiece of the project, entitled, Sing Freedom Sing!!!, will be a main stage concert at the Mann on July 19, 2014, featuring the world premiere of a new work by composer Uri Caine, 19th century African-American sacred music, and thematically-related orchestral works.  The concert will be performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra, featured soloists, and a mass gospel choir composed of select area church choirs.

The concert program will feature Caine’s new, 20-minute work scored for symphonic orchestra, two soloists, gospel chorus, and piano, with a libretto based on the composer’s own research into Catto’s legacy. The program will also include African-American sacred music forms from the 19th- and early 20th-century: two orchestral works, Beethoven’s “Leonore” and Duke Ellington’s “Harlem; classic and contemporary gospel songs; and a gospel setting of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

A creative and focused journey celebrating freedom and brotherhood, this project will introduce non-traditional audiences to gospel music married with classical composition. By merging genres, we anticipate creating a larger constituency for both types of music, as well as inspiring future collaborations across musical lines. Contextual programming will include community launch events, including a mass sing-along and awards luncheon; panel discussions targeted to adults and young people; youth-oriented performances in spoken word, dance, and music; and master classes and workshops. The Philadelphia Freedom Festival will engage the African-American community, faith communities, and classical music patrons.

The historical context of this work is of significance: 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War; and the 175th anniversary of the birth of Catto, an under-recognized yet influential 19th-century Philadelphia civil rights leader. Culturally, it will celebrate the collaboration between Philadelphia-born composer Uri Caine, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and some of the region’s most talented gospel choirs.

In its commitment to community engagement, the Mann will make tickets available to under-served members of the community through its complimentary ticketing program.

The Philadelphia Freedom Festival is one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by the Mann Center of the Performing Arts.  Beyond the historical, cultural, and musical impact, the project will captivate audiences through the fusion of distinct musical forms, each with their own following. For the first time, the Mann will create and present a major new composition bridging the idioms of classical, spiritual, and gospel music—and, in so doing, address the dearth of repertoire for orchestral concerts based on African-American history. Most importantly, this project allows the Mann adapt to the changing marketplace for classical music by developing innovative approaches and collaborations so that the music presented speaks, with integrity, to diverse audiences.


Project Media

Only Love Beauty
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“Philadelphia Freedom Festival”composer, Uri Caine, is known for his ability to blend orchestral and gospel music forms. The work “Only Love Beauty,” is part of a project based on the music of Gustav Mahler, where Caine arranged a Mahler song, originally written for symphony orchestra and singer. Here, Gospel singer Barbara Walker improvises while a choir sings the rearranged Mahler. Philadelphia-native Walker will be a guest artist during the “Sing Freedom Sing!!!” concert.

The Philadelphia Orchestra Plays a Pop Up Concert on October 2, 2013 under the baton of Music Director Yannick Nezet-Sequin
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The Philadelphia Orchestra (POA), one of the ten finest orchestras in the world, will be the primary ensemble performing the project. Excelling in the core repertoire of Western European classical tradition, they have also proven to be a versatile organization. POA consistently applies its virtuosity and justly-famous ‘Philadelphia Sound’ to whatever genre it is playing.

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This excerpt is representative of the work of Nolan Williams, Jr. as an arranger, composer, orchestrator and conductor. He will utilize this expertise as the Artistic Director of the “Philadelphia Freedom Festival” project. Williams, Jr. is a proven interpreter of music from the African American cultural experience, synthesizing traditional forms with concert hall practice.

Start and End Dates



Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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Last update on August 27, 2014

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Philadelphia , Pennsylvania
The Mann Center for the Performing Arts is one of Philadelphia’s leading cultural and civic assets—presenting a world-class performing arts series that reflects the region’s diversity, providing broad access to and an educational context for its presentations, and serving as a community anchor for its surrounding neighborhood and the city. Founded in 1935 as the…


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