Poster Diana Irving plays flute on Bach in the Subways Da
Diana Irving plays flute on Bach in the Subways Day in Los Angeles in 2014.
Bach in the Subways via Tumblr

Putting classical music where the people are

Dale Henderson - Bach in the Subways

A truck rumbles past Dale Henderson as he stands outside his New York City apartment, drowning out his phone conversation. "It's my favorite city in the world, except for the noise," Henderson laughs. "It's so loud!"

That ubiquitous noise is part of what drove Henderson underground, so to speak. Henderson, a professional cellist, is the founder of a movement called Bach in the Subways, which commemorates Bach's birthday — March 21 — by offering free performances with the intent to spread the sound and tranquility of classical music as far as possible. "Most U.S. Americans haven't had the chance to see live classical music," Henderson says. "Bach in the Subways works because when people are exposed to the music, they are amazed. It spreads the word — or re-spreads the word, as it were."

Although Henderson has been performing Bach's cello suites in subway stations since 2010, Bach in the Subways Day began in earnest on March 21, 2011, when Henderson and some musician friends played Bach's music in a handful of stations in New York. In March 2012, additional musicians brought the music to 13 stations. For Bach's birthday in 2013, the movement spread to five U.S. cities, and in 2014, Bach in the Subways had branched out to eight U.S. cities, including Los Angeles and Boston, as well as to cities in Canada, Germany and Taiwan.

As the volunteer movement has spread, the arrangements and instrumentation have grown with it. Henderson describes a variety of acts performing Bach, including the unexpected, such as an accordion duo and a 17-voice chorus in New York; a guitar-and-violin duo in Los Angeles; and a guy in West Hollywood, Calif., who rolled a Steinway out of a piano shop to play Bach in the street. "One of the crowning achievements of 2014 was a flash mob — three cellos and a tuba — on a moving train in Taipei, Taiwan," Henderson says. "That was just tremendous."

Henderson has already been signing people up for the next Bach in the Subways, set for March 21, 2015. He's been reaching out to musicians and music schools to find interested people, adding however, that one needn't be a professional musician or even a strict Bach devotee to participate. He's already got performers signed up in more than 20 cities all over North America, as well as in Europe, South America, Asia and Australia. So far, Henderson has received only one Minnesota sign-up — a performance scheduled at the public library in Cannon Falls.

The reason to sign up, Henderson stresses, is so he and his team of volunteers can provide support to musicians who commit to perform on Bach in the Subways day. Because Bach in the Subways performers do not play for monetary donations, Henderson provides musicians with informational cards that can be handed out to spectators, explaining the purpose of the day's performances. In addition, all scheduled performances are mapped on the Bach in the Subways website, and Henderson says a smartphone app is in development that he hopes will be available to help people find local performances.

Henderson even adds that he is willing to work with transit authorities to help with the appropriate permissions. "It's up to the musicians to decide where to play," Henderson explains, "then we can work together to make it happen."

When asked about potential Bach in the Subways performers at stations in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Metro Transit spokesperson Drew Kerr (no relation to MPR News Arts Reporter Euan Kerr) says that although Metro Transit does not have a specific policy regarding busking, he does note that train platforms are designated for loading and unloading passengers. That said, Kerr acknowledges the stations have "been paid for with public dollars, and so to the extent that we can make them public spaces and available, we want to do that."

Kerr says he would encourage those who may be planning a Bach in the Subways performance near Metro Transit stations to consider the larger spaces at Union Depot and Central Station in St. Paul, and at Government Plaza and Target Field in Minneapolis. "It's not unusual for us to get requests to do photo, video, these kinds of things that are unusual to a platform but can be accommodated if there's notice given," Kerr says. "And something like this, trying to be welcoming and embracing of the community and the arts, I would say contact us and see what we can do."

Beyond the practicalities of performing in public space, there are intangibles Bach in the Subways founder Henderson hopes to achieve through the grassroots movement. "People are busy when they're in transit, but Bach in the Subways brings a sense of tranquility, pause and calm," he says. "And it's Bach — it's amazing! It creates an almost sacred moment or experience for listeners, which I think for a lot of people stays with them and hopefully reinvigorates an interest in classical music.

"My long-term vision for Bach in the Subways," Henderson says, "is to bring a renaissance of interest and inspiration and excitement about classical music to, ideally, the globe."

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