Professor of economics Todd Watkins performs with the Lehigh Philharmonic Orchestra on Feb. 28 at Stabler Arena. This performance was the halftime show at the men’s basketball game against Boston University. (Eddie Furher/ B&W Staff)

Lehigh Philharmonic brings classical music to new spaces


During the halftime of Lehigh’s men’s basketball game against Boston University on Feb. 28, the lights dimmed all across Stabler Arena, except for a roped-off area right behind a basket in the arena’s east end.

The crowd fixed their attention on the Lehigh University Philharmonic Orchestra, who was performing pieces from composers Antonin Dvorak and Aaron Copland in a significant deviation from any typical basketball halftime performance.

Facing the performers, in his final year at Lehigh, was composer Paul Salerni. On top of his traditional attire, the long-time Lehigh men’s basketball season ticket holder was wearing a brown and white sweatshirt with the team’s logo on the front.

“I’ve been a basketball fan all my life,” Salerni said. “Especially at Lehigh.”

Salerni said the performance was the first time the ensemble had ever performed at a basketball game. 

The idea for the performance was born in the fall, when Salerni reached out to the basketball team’s coach, Brett Reed. The date was picked in advance, and around an hour before tipoff, music stands were set up and instruments were moved into the arena.

“Anytime we give a concert, we hope it opens up an audience to classical music,” Salerni said. “It’s a tough sell, but we’re playing stuff that I think everybody will like.”

Before their halftime performance, the Philharmonic also played a piece written by Salerni himself, called “Dance Across Life.” The piece was originally commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of former university trustee Dexter Baker, the honoree of Baker Hall in Zoellner Arts Center, the concert hall where the Philharmonic typically plays.

The attendance of the game was 983 people, just slightly less than the capacity of Baker Hall. 

Philharmonic member Henry Scott, ‘27, said many of the people in attendance may not have ever seen the Philharmonic perform before, so the performance introduced the group to new audiences.

“I think that it’s important for the different communities of Lehigh to get engaged with each other,” Scott said. “I think that this kind of crossover is what will make Lehigh even better.”

Another type of crossover was occurring among members of the Philharmonic, who, wearing their formal orchestra uniforms, moved from their seated area after their performance to play with the pep band at different moments in the game.

The club president of the Philharmonic, Thomas Theiner, ‘25, had performed previously at basketball games as a member of the pep band. 

Theiner said the Philharmonic performance was not only the first time he had performed with an orchestra at a basketball game, but also the first time he recalled performing in a non-traditional setting since President Helble’s inauguration in October 2021.

“I like the idea of doing a performance outside of Baker Hall,” Theiner said. “We don’t really leave Zoellner for the most part.”

While it was the first basketball game for the Philharmonic, it’s far from the first for Salerni.

He previously wrote a piece called “Hoops” about Lehigh’s basketball team. A season ticket holder since 2008, he recalled seeing numerous significant games, including when he traveled with the team’s support staff to  a 2012 away game against Bucknell, where current New Orleans Pelican CJ McCollum, ‘13, scored at the last second to give Lehigh the win and help secure them first place in the Patriot League 

Years later, McCollum recorded a segment as part of a contribution to a tribute video celebrating Salerni’s tenure at Lehigh.

Salerni had a smile on his face the entire night. He got to combine two of his passions: his lifelong love for music and his longtime connection with Lehigh’s basketball program.

“The basketball teams (at Lehigh), both the women and the men, are very dear to my heart,” Salerni said.

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