March 21st, 2015 was the 330th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s birth, a prominent composer of classical music. On Saturday across the world, his life was celebrated through performances in unexpected public places, including one on the steps of Iowa’s former Capitol in Iowa City.
Unannounced, Anthony Arnone emerges from the old Capitol and begins playing excerpts from Bach’s Cello Suites for a dozen curious onlookers. Arnone is an associate professor of cello at the University of Iowa, and has a reputation for playing impromptu sets for people in grocery stores, office buildings, and fitness rooms.
“It catches them a little off guard but also lets them be a little bit more approached by this kind of music than thinking, oh I have to sit in a stuffy concert hall and not know when to clap and things like that, that they can just be in any setting like we are today outside and just enjoy it,” says Arnone.
On this first day of spring, Arnone is one of many musicians playing Bach in other cities as part of an annual coordinated effort called “Bach in the Subways.” It started five years ago in New York City by cellist Dale Henderson as a way to celebrate his favorite composer by playing on the city’s busy subway platforms.
“Every possible type of human being is represented in the New York City subways,” says Henderson. “So I thought what better way to bring this music to as many people as I possibly can than going down into the subways.”
Henderson says while classic music isn’t popular, most will recognize a work or two by Bach and hearing it live in an unassuming setting can spark more interest in this type of music. “Bach has this uncanny ability to connect with everyone. So it seemed like the most obvious choice when what we’re trying to do is unite everyone behind this art form,” says Henderson.
In 2011, Henderson designated Bach’s birthday as “Bach in the Subways” and asks musicians across the world to play this Baroque music on March 21st in public for free. This year, musicians in 39 countries participated, even in places without a subway like Iowa City. By the old Capitol, Steve Mangold is surprised by Anthony Arnone’s unannounced performance.
“We were just about to get up and leave and as soon as we started listening we thought no we have to stick around for this,” says Mangold. Hearing this reminds him of when he used to play an instrument in high school. “I grew up playing trombone actually and it just made me think about going back to playing more music,” says Mangold. “Anytime you hear good music it makes you think about participating.”
This is a reaction cellist Anthony Arnone likes to hear.
“I can’t tell you how many people, adults I’ve met that said, oh I played this instrument in high school or junior high. And I say, do you still play? No, not anymore,” says Arnone. “But if I can get them to kind of have that same sort of reflection of, you know I miss that experience with it. You know not to make money with it, but just to find that love of making a sound out of an instrument, that’s a home run.”
This is the second year Arnone has participated in the “Bach on the Subways” program. He plans to do it again next year but before that, he says he’ll be doing many more unannounced performances of Bach in public spaces.