You don’t usually hear classical music on the sidewalk, but it filled the air on the 111th Street block of Amsterdam on April 24. Melodious strings and the celestial calm of a humming flute lifted the audience with works from the canon—Mozart, Shostakovich, and Dvorak. People stopped by and took note, and some of them will surely come back when musicians perform again later in May.
“It’s nice after the isolation,” said Bronek Pytrowsky, a local resident. “I’m not a musician, but I grew up with classical music, so it resonates with me.
“Especially when they play Mozart,” he said, ‘like right now.” Pytrowsky said he often comes by events on these streets, but noted that this one wasn’t typical. “Normally there’s no music,” he said.
The classical music is expected to return on May 22, as plans are being finalized by the 111th Block Association, which provided the space for the musicians.
Although the organization dates back to the 1970’s, it has gone through several iterations and interludes, and had started up again just as Covid hit the city last year in March. Its Open Streets Program on Amsterdam Ave., between 111th and 1110th St. on Saturdays and Sundays, offers space for monthly or quarterly gatherings. Part of the goal is to support neighborhood shops and restaurants. On this particular Saturday, there had been a street sale earlier in the afternoon, and other genres of music were played intermittently.
But the classical music was the highlight of the festivities as the street sale wrapped up. “There was a lot going on and then it was sort of like a calmness when the classical music started,” said Gretchen Connelie, a planning committee member of the association. “It elevated everything for sure.”
Connelie pointed out that musicians have been having a hard time during the pandemic, and association members were excited to provide a space for them. “There’s obviously a lot of people who have focused on the economic impact for musicians not being able to play,” said Connelie. “But there hasn’t been too much talked about the emotional impact of that.”
Molly Goldman, the Juilliard-trained violist who organized the session, would agree. She said that she had been missing her performance buzz. “I was, you know, just craving to play,” Goldman said. “I just thought that this was a good way to not only play with people, but kind of share music with my community. So why not the best of both worlds?”
Once Goldman got permission from the association, she sent out an email to friends and created an Instagram post, inviting others to play. A couple of musicians beyond her familiar musician community joined in. Most of the musicians were professionals, formally trained. Some of them knew each other from playing for the National Tour for Miss Saigon, the Broadway show that, like so many others, abruptly stopped in the pandemic.
Adam Roberts, a former actor who also toured with the national Miss Saigon, came by to visit his friends who were performing, as it had been almost a year since he had seen the former cast members. “We’ve been in a drought in the entertainment industry, in the art world, so I think people are hungry–the citizens are hungry for any kind of bit of music or art or theater they can nibble on,” said Roberts.
“When the world stopped, we stopped,” said Roberts. “Everyone’s switching gears and making it work for them as best they can.” Roberts said he switched gears from music to marketing during the pandemic, while Goldman and other musicians said they have been playing less but teaching more.
Will Curry, a violinist and former conductor for the Miss Saigon show, said he already has the street venue in his calendar for next month. “A day getting to play with people is a luxury,” said Curry. “Performing is just like an extension of my existence because there’s something about that adrenaline rush, and that way of connecting with an audience, that really makes me feel human.
“It’s just like a part of who I am,” said Curry, “and I don’t think about needing to do it until suddenly it’s gone.”