STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
The Divine Hand Ensemble, one of the Philadelphia area’s most unusual classical music groups, returns to the site of their very first performance – Sellersville Theater. But before you say “I don’t like classical music,” please keep reading. This just might be the band to change your mind.
Multi-instrumentalist Mano Divina, who had been performing in Europe in the 2000s, purchased a theremin as a novelty. What ensued was a love affair with the instrument that inspired him to dedicate his life to exploring the musical possibilities of the theremin.
Divina performed his first U.S. concert on the theremin in Philadelphia in 2008. It went so well that he decided to stay in his hometown to put together a band instead of returning to Europe to perform.
“I decided since I’m from Philadelphia and I think Philadelphia has a wealth of untouched talent, that I would (create) my ensemble and make them all from Philadelphia,” said Divina in a telephone interview from his home in Philadelphia.
Divina’s ensemble includes 3 violinists, 2 harpists, 1 violist, 1 cellist and 1 vibraphonist/celestist/percussionist. Divina thought carefully about the instrumentation that he wanted as the foundation for the theremin.
Divina recognized that some of “the instruments in an orchestra that move me (are) violin, harp and vibraphone. I noticed these all had a somewhat heavenly reputation to them, and since I was choosing music that I wanted to purposely move people with, I wanted to make sure that the voicings in the group were the proper musical decorations to further that.”
On Halloween night, 2009, the Divine Hand Ensemble made their concert debut at Sellersville Theater. Filmmaker Sergio Valentino was there with a film crew to document the event.
“He got the idea of hiring a film crew and following us around for an entire year,” said Divina. “So starting with the Sellersville debut of the Divine Hand Ensemble in 2009 to our return to Sellersville in 2010, he filmed everything – all rehearsals, all shows… what it’s like when things go wrong, when things go right… and he made an awesome documentary.
“It’s called ‘21st Century Classical Music.’ It debuted at the Cinedelphia Film Festival where it won an award and got honorary mention as one of the best events of the Cinedelphia Film Festival. That was 3 years ago, I believe.”
In the years since, Divine Hand Ensemble has continued to break down the barriers between classical musicians, their traditional limitations and connecting to their audiences. Divina has broken new ground in the genre with not only their repertoire but the places that they perform.
“I wanted to pick music that has proven to touch people year after year. What I did not plan for and what has been a wonderful, happy accident with this group is (performing) material that we wouldn’t expect to do. We are able to perform a song by Rush right next to a song by Mozart and few people can tell the difference. A lot of people think the Rush song was just as moving to them as the Mozart song and we didn’t set out to do that, but that has helped us really break down the walls that we did set out to break down with this group.”
One part of Divine Hand Ensemble’s concerts is called Live Without a Net, which illustrates the group’s commitment to defy expectations of classical artists.
“I told the group one thing I want to do is break down this wall and in order to do that we’re going to do something a rock band would do that a classical band wouldn’t normally do. We’re going to have something called Live Without a Net, which is where we’re going to do something unrehearsed, off the record, maybe even somewhat disastrous and funny. The very first time we did this, we let audience members call out what we were going to do… and it was a very instantly different moment, like ‘wow, you never see a classical group do this.’ The challenge is to do a cover song and to change its style, so we did a Barry Manilow disco song called ‘Magic’ and we did it in the style of a funerary march.”
The band’s second Live Without a Net venture was performing a Halloween song that was ska and playing it in the style of Henry Mancini. They subsequently added The Specials’ song “Ghost Town” into their regular repertoire and Live Without a Net is now part of every show.
In addition to expanding beyond the repertoire that is expected of classical music ensembles, Divina has brought his ensemble to perform in unlikely places including Laurel Hill Cemetery and nightclubs in addition to traditional venues.
“I’m very proud of it, that we’re talking about how we have a diverse crowd and how we appeal to people who go beyond just classical music. In the same week that we performed for the Pope [on his historic visit to Philadelphia in 2015] we performed for David Lynch and cast members of the movie ‘Eraserhead’ and we didn’t have to change a song. We did the same music on the same instruments in the same outfits and not too many people could jump from as artsy a scene as David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’ cast and performing for the Pope and not have to kind of tailor their image or customize what they do.”
So what does Divina have planned for their landmark show at Sellersville?
“(We’ll be) doing a little bit of everything. We’re going to do a chunk of our regular material that you would see… if you came to see us any time this year, including our tributes to David Bowie and to Gene Wilder and a couple of other favorites. We’re going to be doing a whole bunch of new material that we either have never played out live or have not played in Philly and we’re going to dust off one or two that we have never done in our regular repertoire that reflect the first two shows we ever did at Sellersville as sort of a nostalgia down memory lane kind of thing. We’re going to be doing a history of our Live Without a Net… (and) a brand new Live Without a Net, which might be one of the silliest things we’ve ever pulled off on stage.”
Divina is very excited to return to the place where it all began for Divine Hand.
“I can’t stress how much I love the Sellersville Theater. It was my dream place to debut. When I was in another country, all I thought about (was) coming back and playing (there), and it’s my dream place to have a 100th show. They were the first people to give me a chance to do this.”