Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Classical Music Apparitions: Virtuosi Buskings & Flash Mobs

You might have heard of this already, back in January 2007 the American virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell went undercover for 45 minutes as a street violinist playing some of the most virtuosic music ever written on one of the most expensive musical instruments ever made - the 1713 Gibson ex Huberman Stradivarius - for changes at L'Enfant Plaza Metro Station in Washington DC. He was participating in a social experiment arranged by the Washington Post to answer the question; "In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?". The Post's article on the episode summed it up;
"In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look. (Weingarten)"

A few months later on the island across the Atlantic Ocean British virtuoso violinist Tasmin Little (and her 1708 Regent Stradivarius) embarked on the same type of stint at bustling Waterloo Station in London, England, with just a slightly better result (probably because she was more interactive with her audience than Bell was);
"After 45 minutes, it's time to wrap up and retire to a café to count the takings and take soundings. Tasmin has made £14.10. Eight people had stopped to listen to her, of whom one was under the age of three, out of an estimated 900 to 1,000 passers-by. (Duchen)"
Such stellar musicians, such dismal reception... Surely it wasn't their playing that caused such indifference, otherwise other undercover busking wouldn't have drawn such enthusiastic applause even in places like the market or an airport. Though I used the wrong word, what the latter are are 'flash mobbing' rather than 'busking', the difference is that the performers move around and the impromptu audience aren't burdened with the prospect of having to make an unsolicited donation. The musicians are clearly there for fun, and it is a lot more fun to all involved when there isn't an invisible 'quid pro quo' elephant in the room.

Here is the Macon Symphony's flash mob 'Can Can' from Jacques Offenbach's Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld) at the local stores and market. It's a part of a Knight Arts program called Random Acts of Culture, which, apparently, is participated by many American orchestras and classical choruses (sadly, though, none from San Diego area yet).

My favorite classical flash mob so far is the one pulled off by the Copenhagen Philharmonic at the Copenhagen Central Station earlier this year.

One minute they are there, and the next they had melted away into the crowd... a delicious apparition!

You know, I'd love to see more well known artists embarking on this thing (especially when they're doing opera flash mobs... Some opera arias just don't sound all that appetizing when they aren't sung well). I know it is a bit of labor for no pay, but it helps promote the art-form that supports your livelihood... and it helps those who hadn't been to a symphony or opera performance ever to see that classical musicians are people just like they are when they aren't wearing the official gown and tux. 

By the way, if you didn't already know it, Tasmin Little is so keen on spreading the love for classical music she actually offers one of her albums, The Naked Violin, for free download at her website. Check it out and have a blast!

- Weingarten, Gene. "Pearls Before Breakfast." Washington Post. 8 April 2007.


Andrei Bolkonsky said...

Over here in Melbourne, I have been feeling that our buskers are getting more and more skilled. I would love to sit and listen to them for half an hour or so, but find that there's no place to sit, so am left standing there feeling rather ridiculous because I'm the only one watching. There used to be a couple of guys playing trumpets in front of the train station. Trouble was that it was during peak hour when people are rushing to work. Would have loved to stay and listen, but just threw money at them. Buskers keep changing where they go as well. So you can't go back and see them again either. A few weeks ago I came across a very skilled elderly er-hu player. When I came back half an hour later to give the guy $10, he had gone. Haven't seen him agin since :(.

Anonymous said...

There was a wondeful flash-mob recently in The North where they tried to revive clog dancing. They taught a load of non-dancers the basics and descended on a major shopping area at the busiest time on a Saturday. The sound of 100 pairs of clogs beating out rhythms in a city street was exhilarating and many people were converted to having a go at the dying art.
This flash-mob thing seems to really raise the spirits of those taking part as well as those being caught by surprise
Anyone for a White Shirt opera flash-mob??

Smorg said...

G'day Andre: Busking at busy places like train station during rush hours seems rather a set up for failure indeed. As you say, many of those who want to stop and listen really can't. I guess it'd be much easier in European cities with public squares where people hang out at. Here folks hang out at the mall or at the beach.

The last time I ran into a busker I was on my way to catch a bus back into town from Ocean Beach. Stayed and listened for a while, missed the bus, but that was okay since it wasn't the last bus of the day, and I got to hear some really cool improv from this tiny lady on her guitar doing a really psychedelic mix of Beatles songs. :oD

Hiya Eyes: I haven't seen any flash mob in real life yet. Would love for the San Diego Symphony and the San Diego Opera to have a go at it. They both can use a lot more public exposure to the local crowd. :oD

White Shirt flash mobbing? That sure sounds flashy! :oD What do we do???