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Bringing Bach to the Public

Jessica Gross | Longreads | June 9, 2016 | 3,866 words

A conversation with violinist Michelle Ross, who, for a month, toured New York City playing Bach’s entire solo violin cycle in public spaces.

Posted inNonfiction, Profiles & Interviews, Story

Bringing Bach to the Public

A conversation with violinist Michelle Ross, who, for a month, toured New York City playing Bach’s entire solo violin cycle in public spaces.
Photo: Michelle Ross and 'Discovering Bach'

Jessica Gross | Longreads | June 2016 | 15 minutes (3,866 words)

In December, I stayed in New York City while its residents flew away and visitors flooded the streets. I treated the quiet time like a vacation, searching for little adventures. On a Tuesday shortly before Christmas, this little Jew put on her most respectable NYC-adventuress outfit—a green-and-gray-plaid skirt, black heeled ankle boots—and went to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.

Several days prior, scouring the detailed schedule of the (insanely beautiful) Cathedral, I’d seen a mysterious listing for a Bach pop-up concert. I knew little about what I was headed to, and hadn’t seen this concert advertised anywhere. When I showed up, only a smattering of people filled the seats in the grand cavernous space.

It is hard to describe a completely transporting musical experience; all the most accurate words feel cheesy. But here it is: this experience was transcendent. The woman playing Bach on her violin created a trance in which we were all held captive. It felt ludicrous that there were not more people there to witness it. When the performance ended, I blinked and smacked my hands together, wanting more.

She announced she’d be playing again shortly, at the Hungarian Pastry Shop across the street, so I dutifully followed. It was a different space—crowded with patrons, small, the sound loud and close. But I was entranced yet again. I beamed a gaping smile at the strangers around me, less cool adventuress than extremely uncool sycophant, but I couldn’t help it: this was pretty euphoric.

Afterward, I introduced myself to the musician. Her name was Michelle Ross, and it turned out this was the culmination of “Discovering Bach,” her 33-day project playing Bach’s entire solo violin cycle in public spaces throughout New York City. She kept a blog throughout, but hadn’t promoted the series anywhere; she wanted to create an authentic communal experience, not do a publicity stunt. Ross is young and extremely accomplished: she spent over a decade training with the  legendary Itzhak Perlman, has played on famous stages all over the world, curates a classical music festival in Utah, and even composes her own music. We met up a couple of months after her mesmerizing performance to discuss “Discovering Bach” and what it means to perform classical music in a public space, to let it be raw.

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