Bach in the Subways Day coming to Modesto – minus the subway

Anne Martin conducts a rehearsal of MJC’s Community Orchestra.
Anne Martin conducts a rehearsal of MJC’s Community Orchestra. Teens in the Newsroom program

Moviegoers and restaurant patrons on Saturday will be treated to more than the usual sounds of buses at the nearby Transportation Center and the gentle hum of downtown Modesto’s relatively sparse weekend morning traffic.

Beginning at 11:30 a.m., Modesto’s 10th Street Plaza will come to life as part of an international musical phenomenon. In celebration of the 330th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s birth, the Modesto Junior College Community Orchestra will perform a 45-minute concert in the street. Forty members of the MJC Community Orchestra – college and high school students, retirees and working professionals – will be playing on Bach in the Subways Day.

“I like taking music out into the world,” said Anne Martin, MJC’s director of orchestra and strings. “So far, there’s 130 cities and 39 countries involved. So all over the world, there are going to be people playing Bach for free, for everybody. … We’ll be joined by people all around the world, and that’s very exciting.”

Martin, who will be directing the orchestra for Bach in the Subways Day, said her experience playing in public spaces dates back to her high school and college years. “Ever since I was in high school, I’d just go out with my friends and play music in the street. … And when I was a student, I had a string quartet, and we earned our living playing in the streets in the summer.”

Bach in the Subways Day began with cellist Dale Henderson performing Bach’s Cello Suites in New York City subway stations in 2010 and has since been embraced across the globe. This year marks the event’s Modesto debut.

“We wanted to just share music with everybody,” Martin said. “I think there’s a special energy in live music that we sometimes forget because everybody’s plugged into their iPods and they forget what it’s like to hear live music and just feel the vibrations.”

Martin said she hopes her MJC students inherit her belief in the importance of music for all. “My students, sometimes, you’ll see them in the middle of the quad, spontaneously bursting into fiddle tunes. … For my students, the performance is like a reward. There’s this excitement and a really high level of energy.”

The group will perform a romantic arrangement of Bach’s Fugue in G Minor, as well as the second of his six Brandenburg Concertos. The music is arranged “so it’s almost like there’s a conversation going on between the soloist and the orchestra,” Martin said.

In addition to the pieces composed by Bach, the orchestra will play movements composed by Felix Mendelssohn, the 19th-century composer who is largely credited with bringing Bach’s music out of obscurity.

Compared with the days of her youth, said Martin, playing free music in public places has gone from a simple act to a complex task. “In Philadelphia back then, we’d just bring a stand and our instruments and we’d just play for a few hours. … The Philadelphia police, who were kind of notorious for being tough guys, would always come over and say hello and give us a dollar, and they watched out for us. They loved it.

“We never had to get a permit, we never had to apply for a license, we never had to ask for permission. We just went out.”

In present-day Modesto, however, preparing to give their music to the community has been a bureaucratic frustration for Martin. “Times have changed. We’ve had to go out and get permits and licenses and pay fees to be able to play. … We have to pay to rent the space, we have to be insured to be there, and we have to have a permit to be there from the police. It’s called a sound amplification permit, and I was a little puzzled by that since we’re not amplifying sound. But we got our permits.

“It was so interesting for me to go through this rather complicated process, since for years I’d just been playing music in major cities on the street.”

The hassle, however, is worth it, she said. “It’s just really important for us to be able to play in a public space.”

Martin said she hopes the community will come to join the orchestra in experiencing an international event on a local level. “I hope that people will come out and enjoy this. It’s a real celebration, it’s just such a great feeling to be a part of something that’s happening all over the world.”

She added that it could be a good first exposure to those unfamiliar with classical music. “It’s a wonderful introduction for people who have maybe never heard orchestra before,” she said. “I really like the idea of having somebody just walking by and just getting to hear live music. … Music belongs everywhere, and not just in the concert hall.”

Zachary Senn is a Modesto Junior College student and a member of The Bee’s Teens in the Newsroom program.