This weekend, thousands of musicians around the world have conspired to fill subway stations and public places with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, in celebration of the composer's 331st birthday on Monday.
The events, taking place March 19-21, are all part of Bach in the Subways, a movement that has spread like wildfire over the past six years.
It all started in 2010, when a cellist named Dale Henderson went on a mission to spread the music of Bach. He started by performing solo Bach Suites in various New York City subway stations. Instead of accepting money, Henderson gave away free postcards that invited his audience to continue to explore the music of Bach and classical music in general. The following year, Henderson invited other musicians to join him on Bach's birthday, March 21, 2011, and that was the beginning of an annual tradition, Bach in the Subways.
Using the Internet to help organize as well as old-fashioned word-of-mouth, the movement grew exponentially. By 2015, thousands of musicians in 150 cities in 40 countries offered free public performances of Bach’s music in subway stations, in train stations, on moving trains, on street corners, in cafés, malls, restaurants, and zoos for a three-day event around the composer's birthday. This year it promised to be even bigger. When I asked Henderson what he thought about the event's growth and success, he had one word: "Magic!"
It's pretty straightforward to participate: simply "play J.S. Bach any time, anywhere between 12:00 am on Saturday, March 19 and 11:59 pm on Monday, March 21, 2016." And, the performance has to be free, by unpaid musicians. (You can register your performance with Bach in the Subways if you wish, or just do it!) If you are interested in finding a performance this weekend, you can look for performances in your area here.
"The Bach in the Subways movement is an excellent vehicle for the classical musician to break the barrier between audience and performer, to dust off the idea of stuffiness that keeps new audiences from going to classical concerts," said Adrienne Andisheh, Chamber Music Los Angeles, who helped organize 111 Los Angeles-area musicians this year for an 11-hr Bach marathon at Union Station, to take place Sunday. Andishesh said the Los Angeles effort began in 2014 with just a single group of musicians. "My favorite moments from this experience have been seeing the connection that takes place, watching the faces of children completely entranced in the performances, and seeing commuters doing double takes as they walk by, often stopping to take in a moment of beauty, their faces transformed. It is transportive, magical, inspiring and renewing to witness this kind of human connection happening all around you, to be an active part of it."
Violinist Felix Hernandez remembers the first very small event in 2014, just an octet at Los Angeles Court House. He and Andishesh had been asked to play in a rather random way: as they were emerging from Starbucks after a gig, LA organizer Jee-hyun Lee saw their instrument cases and approached them.
"She described Bach in the Subways as a grass-roots organization whose mission was to promote and spread the music of J.S. Bach to as wide an array of people as possible," Hernandex said. "We were quickly won over by the sentiment and ideology...and agreed to take part and to organize a small ensemble."
"Even though it was a brisk evening, there was a remarkable turn-out," he said of that first year's performance. "Many participants and listeners had made an excursion out of the event, traveling via Metro to the Civic Center Station, coffees in hand and wrapped in scarves. It was incredibly windy; music flew and fingers numbly fumbled upon the fingerboards. But, everyone who played had a great time and it was a wonderful experience. The momentum has continued to grow and every successive year has gotten more and more exposure and grown more expansive.
And why do we musicians get so wound up over Bach?
"As a violinist, there is hardly any other composer whose music is at once so simple and grand," Hernandez said. "It's a true testament to Bach's skill as a composer, to use the violin in such imaginative ways. His music withstands the test of time so well, and can be interpreted in so many different ways. The Sonatas and Partitas and Cello Suites are brilliant masterworks and represent some of the greatest expressions of Baroque and Classical forms. That being said, when they were published, they could have been characterized as the 'Top Twenty Charts' of the 1690's! Almost every type of dance form that listeners would have been exposed to is present. It is tempting to imagine a lone violinist or cellist providing the evening's entertainment for his friends and family as they carouse well into the night."
At the same time, Bach's works also embody a kind of private spiritualism. "The works are also deeply reverential," Hernandez said. "Within the privacy of the practice room they represent a lone musician's probings into life's questions and its myriad interlocking paths and explorations. To hear one play Bach could almost be likened to being seated on the couch at their psycho-analyst's office or being tucked within the confessional. Regardless of how many allusions we draw to the magic of these great works, we would still only be offering words to describe an experience which, being molded in music, is utterly transcendent of any spoken word."
So go play some Bach this weekend, or go listen! (Click here to find an event near you.)
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IN NEW YORK: Featuring Bach in the Subways founder Dale Henderson and conductor Harold Rosenbaum. New York City, 2015.
IN LOS ANGELES: Bach in the Subways: Roger Lebow. Union Station, Los Angeles, 2015.
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