Philadelphia's French arts connection

If you want to spend April in Paris but can't afford it, a short hop to Philadelphia may at least give you that French feeling.

After nearly three years of planning, the city kicks off the first Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts this weekend, featuring 1,500 artists and 135 exhibits, performances, lectures and films, all paying homage to Paris.

The theme of the festival at the city's Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts focuses on Paris from 1910 to 1920, celebrating a time when great artists, including Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and Ernest Hemmingway, were gravitating to the French city.

Seeking to recapture that magical moment, Philadelphia is positioning itself as another city in the midst of an artistic blossoming.

Through May 1, the sprawling and ambitious arts festival will offer free and ticketed events, ranging from the astonishing to the absurd — from acrobats with pyrotechnics performing as they hang from a giant chandelier over Broad Street to a musical about a real-life "fartiste," who entertained Paris by passing gas.

The spectacle will be overseen by an 81-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower, constructed with 6,000 light bulbs, which will be lit at the Kimmel Center Plaza each night. The festival is supported by a $10 million grant from the late Leonore Annenberg and the Annenberg Foundation.

The Kimmel Center, which opened 10 years ago, is a focal point, with free performances, family activities and French food for sale. French food will also be served in restaurants and other venues throughout the city. Eleven master chefs from France helped local restaurants create menus, and the Academy of Music Ballroom is serving a French-inspired buffet from Wolfgang Puck Catering.

Ed Cambron, executive director of the festival, said the original idea was to tie the event to composer Igor Stravinsky, whose famed "The Rite of Spring" debuted in Paris in 1913.

"It grew very quickly into the theme of what was happening in another great city 100 years ago," he said.

Some artists and venues explicitly embraced the idea, he said. For example, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is hosting "Paris through the Window," a Chagall exhibit celebrating the artist's paintings from 1910 to 1920. And the Athenaeum of Philadelphia is hosting an exhibit of Frecn influences on Philadelphia architecture.

Others are focusing more on the ideas of collaboration and creativity.

Baltimore resident and Towson University music professor Jonathan Leshnoff has composed "Hope: An Oratorio for PIFA," which will have its world premier on Easter Sunday at the Kimmel Center.

Leshnoff, 37, said he has been working on the oratorio for nearly two years. It will be performed by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Girlchoir.

Leshnoff said he drew from the Bible, Walt Whitman, and other religious and secular sources to deliver a springtime message of renewal.

"Paris 100 years ago is a big crucible for artistic currents," he said. "In the broadest sense, that is what Philadelphia is trying to do."

In addition to the festival, the 27th annual Philadelphia International Children's Festival takes place this weekend at the city's Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. The event offers child-friendly performances, including the Stravinsky ballet "Petrushka" performed by puppets; a performance that includes singing, dancing and storytelling by the Native American artist Thirza Defoe; and two shows on Saturday starring well-known actor John Lithgow. (For showtimes and ticket information, visit the Annenberg Center's website, at

Children's events are also sprinkled throughout the art festival, including an Easter egg hunt at Kimmel Center Plaza and a French-infused street fair, set for April 30 on six blocks of Broad Street, the main arts street in the city, with a giant Ferris wheel, entertainment on two outdoor stages and a gravity-defying show by La Compagnie Transe Express performing from a chandelier-like structure 100 feet in the air.

The Allentown Morning Call contributed to this article.

If you go The Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts

Through May 1 at 135 venues in and around Philadelphia. Highlights include a Marc Chagall exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the world premier of 'Hope: an Oratorio' on April 24, and a street fair on April 30. For more information on scheduling and tickets, go to, or call 215-546-7432.

27th International Children's Festival. Through Saturday at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 3680 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. For tickets or more information, visit, or call the box office at 215-898-3900.

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