JOHN SCHAEFER: You can find music all over New York. You can even find it under New York
For over a quarter century, the sound artist Christopher Janney's installation at the 34th street subway station has allowed New Yorkers to trigger sounds from musical instruments to a tropical rainforest. Even some of the trains seem to make music as they get up to speed.
Some people think that sounds like the beginning of Bernstein's song, There's a Place For Us, from West Side Story. Others think it sounds like the beginning of Bali Hai from the musical South Pacific. The point is, even the city subways are musical places, and in a little while, you'll meet one of the musicians who plays classical music on the subway platforms.
I'm John Schaefer and this is New York in Concert, your guide to the city's classical music scene. A surprising amount of that scene happens underground in places where you don't actually want to hear the subways. In fact when Carnegie opened Zankel Hall back in 2003, people were wondering if you'd hear the R train rumbling by, but as you'll hear later, it wasn't really anything to worry about.
We'll also take you to a performance in the catacombs under Brooklyn's historic Greenwood Cemetery.
Up next on New York in Concert, one of the most stunning underground venues you'll find anywhere: the catacombs under Greenwood cemetery in Brooklyn.
CLAIRE CHAN: When you say the word catacombs? Okay. Conjures up certain things, but nothing like what we really experienced.
JOHN SCHAEFER: That’s Claire Chan from the Harlem Chamber Players. Let me see if I can set the scene for you here. To get to the catacombs, you enter through a crypt door that looks like something out of a horror movie. Especially if it’s a foggy night.
CLAIRE CHAN: You can't tell from the outside what you're walking into.
JOHN SCHAEFER: Once you’re inside, there’s a long, stone hallway of sorts with a curved ceiling and a row of doors on each side. There’s a very hushed atmosphere, and Claire Chan says that actually suited one of the pieces they played.
CLAIRE CHAN: One of the gestures that is written into, uh, the George Walker String Quartet Second Movement, is a gesture, which, which I associate with breathing. Basically it's an intake and the release is, is the playing of a long note. That type of breathing in the catacombs is magical because not everybody there is breathing.
JOHN SCHAEFER: So we'll hear the Harlem Chamber Players performing that movement, Molto Adagio from Walker's String Quartet No. 1, and then the lively third movement of the piece as well recorded in the catacombs under Greenwood Cemetery.
String Quartet No. 1 - Walker
II. Molto Adagio
III. Allegro con Fuoco
Harlem Chamber Players
Ashley Horne, violin
Claire Chan, violin
Amadi Azikiwe, viola
Wayne Smith, cello
Recorded live at the Catacombs at Greenwood Cemetery
JOHN SCHAEFER: That was recorded live in the catacombs under Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The Harlem Chamber Players. Specifically violinists Ashley Horne and Claire Chan, violist Amadi Azikiwe, and cellist Wayne Smith playing two movements from the String Quartet No. 1 by George Walker. The slow movement is easily Walker's most famous piece of music under it's later title of Elegy for Strings.
This time on New York in Concert, we're bringing you music from some of the city's underground venues. Just up the block from LPR is SubCulture, a proudly subterranean space. I mean, it's, it's right there in their name. And in 2015, the Young People's Chorus of New York, led by conductor and MacArthur genius award winner Francisco Nuñez, sang a bunch of world premiers at SubCulture. One of those works was by Caroline Mallonée; a three-part piece called Search, which was based on Google searches and specifically the suggestions that Google will supply when you start typing in a question. Part two of the piece is called Desperation and it, it had the audience chuckling at the increasingly, yeah, desperate questions that people ask.
Search from Desperation - Mallonée
Young People’s Chorus
Recorded in 2015 at Subculture
JOHN SCHAEFER: A lovely ending to a pretty comic piece by Caroline Mallonee. Search is a three-part piece about search engine questions. And that part, part two is called Desperation. The YPC, the Young People's Chorus of New York was conducted by Francisco Nuñez, and that performance took place in 2015 at SubCulture, one of New York's surprisingly numerous underground music venues.
New York in Concert is your guide to the city's classical music scene, even its underground classical music scene. I'm John Schaefer. I was at Carnegie's Zankel Hall for its opening weekend back in 2003, and so was the Emerson Quartet. And you'll hear how that turned out in just a bit.
JOHN SCHAEFER: Every year in March for Bach’s birthday, a global community of musicians play Bach’s music, to bring public attention to classical music. Somewhat oddly, this movement is called “Bach in the Subways,” because it’s in the New York subways that it all began back in 2010.
DALE HENDERSON: It's basically like a huge classical music marketing effort. It's like free samples. We're giving out free samples because we wanna get people hooked on this product. And so, you know, where better to give out these samples than a place where you're gonna get everyone?
My name is Dale Henderson. I am a cellist. I think I'm best known for founding Bach in the Subways, which is a way to connect more people with classical music.
The most diverse group of people are gonna be in the subways. So it was just -- if my goal was to hit as many demographics as possible, that was the best place to be. But when you introduce Bach -- I don't think you could find one so-called classical composer with more universal appeal.
Jazz musicians relate to Bach… I've heard Bach certainly in regular pop...
I mean, just everywhere.
I did it alone. I had the little light stool and then I had a bag with the music stand and the cello.
I mean, I managed to kinda get everything compact enough that it was doable. So I would, you know, try to find stations where there were two elements: number one, they were little less loud than other stations and two, there were good places for people to be able to listen, to either stand or sit or both.
And I had cards, little cards that explain that classical music, you know, audiences have been declining and I'm not doing this for money, just declining donations, but please just listen to the music.
The whole thing started with just me and a Facebook page. And I say I'm gonna be at, you know, whatever the stop was at whatever time and I'd announce it that day and show up. So around Bach's birthday in 2011, we were like, oh, well, why don't we get other people to do this on Bach's birthday? It just gained momentum and…
… professionals to absolute amateurs around the world just loved the idea, that eventually it snowballed and by 2015…
There were thousands of musicians around the globe playing Bach. Not just subways, in public places everywhere.
Japan, they had a whole orchestra in a mall.
It was very much a viral thing, so Harold Rosenbaum and I got connected. he's a pretty important choral conductor.
We kind of just figured out, like, what would be an amazing way to demonstrate like, that insane global swirl of activity. So we had a flashmob.
I think it was like a, 200 or 300 person choir.
We did a rehearsal in a church, I think. And then we all just went down there...
...and pretended to be normal people. And so I was sitting there. So I started, I just started "da dah," well I'm not gonna -- I can't sing, but I started with this single line…
And it just looked like a cellist, you know, playing Bach. And suddenly, this platform, which is filled with 200 choristers, is resounding with Bach...
It was also like a really cool symbol I think of the whole Bach in the Subways movement.
The journey from just me… to this huge chorus.
JOHN SCHAEFER: You can find out more about Bach in the Subways and watch previous performances at Bach in the Subways dot org.
Coming up in a moment, it was a big deal when Carnegie Hall opened its new subterranean space back in 2003. And we will bring you some of the live music from opening weekend at Zankel Hall as we continue with New York in Concert. But before we leave Bach entirely behind, here is a movement of the Bach Concerto in C minor for oboe, violin, and continuo. Transcribed here for violin, harpsichord, and continuo. Recorded in Zankel Hall by Italy’s Accademia Bizantia.
In September 2003, Carnegie Hall unveiled its new mid-sized performance space: Zankel Hall built underneath it's famous mainstage. Zankel has some nice touches. They left a couple of bits of exposed Manhattan bedrock visible in the walls. It's a reminder that you're underground and not far from the subway. So that opening weekend, we were all really interested to see how the hall would sound. And the answer was, pretty good. If the music was very soft, you could occasionally hear a distant rumbling sound from the R train, but really no one had any complaints. Part of Zankel's opening weekend was this performance by the incomparable Emerson String Quartet. And the piece they played was by Haydn, his String Quartet No. 5. Sometimes nicknamed the Largo quartet because of its big second movement, which is marked Largo Cantabile E Mesto, broadly song-like and sad. The Emersons of course played the whole piece and we'll hear it now from Zankel Hall's opening weekend in 2003, this is Haydn's String Quartet Number Five in D major.
Quartet in D Major, No. 5 - Haydn
Emerson String Quartet
Eugene Drucker, violin
Philip Setzer, violin
Lawrence Dutton, viola
David Finckel, cello
Recorded live at the opening of Zankel Hall September 15, 2003
JOHN SCHAEFER: The String Quartet No. 5 in D major by Franz Joseph Haydn played by the Emerson String Quartet. We recorded that live at Carnegie Hall's underground space, Zankel Hall on its opening weekend, September of 2003. And we've been listening to music made underground in New York. Now we can emerge, blinking into the light and set our sights on our next program, which will feature the bridge and tunnel crowd. Memorable performances from upstate, Long Island, and New Jersey.
New York in Concert is a production of WQXR in New York. Our team includes Lauren Purcell-Joiner, Eileen Delahunty, Sam Kim, Matt Boynton, Matt Abramovitz, and me, John Schaefer. You can find a playlist for the show, listen again on demand, or share with a friend at wqxr.org.
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