If no one else is going to play the subway piano, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians say they will
By Elizabeth Nonemaker
Jul 25, 2019 | 6:00 AM
Despite an ongoing lockout, the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra have continued organizing concerts for the public.
Their latest effort is dubbed the Baltimore Symphony Musicians Summer Subway Series, inspired by a report that subway riders are reluctant to take advantage of a piano intended for public use in the Charles Center subway station.
“I took a trip to the station to look at the piano and it was a nice upright instrument,” said BSO oboist Michael Lisicky. “The MTA seems committed to keeping it in good working order and having it regularly tuned.”
The piano has been in the station since January, when the Maryland Department of Transportation announced a program called “Music in Transit.” Five pianos, provided through an anonymous donation to the Maryland State Arts Council, would be installed at various Metro SubwayLink stations.
To date, only the Charles Center station has been outfitted with a piano. However, according to an earlier story by The Baltimore Sun, commuters are reluctant to play it, frequently unsure if they’re allowed to despite an inscription on the instrument that reads, “Play us a song. I’m the piano, man.”
Musicians from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra were originally slated to give a public summertime performance as part of Artscape; that performance was canceled, along with the rest of the summer season, in May of this year, when BSO management announced a reduction of the concert season from 52 to 40 weeks and locked out the musicians on June 17.
Lisicky said he “tried to find a different location at Artscape so [the musicians] could maintain an annual presence.” But the deadline for applications had passed.
“Summer is the time for festivals and new experiences,” said Lisicky. “If we [couldn’t] play at Artscape, maybe we could make a mini-festival involving that lonely piano at the Charles Center station?”
BSO musicians will give performances starting at 4:15 p.m. the week of July 29. Monday, Wednesday and Friday will feature a different family of instruments: woodwinds, strings and brass respectively. Tuesday and Thursday will feature performances by pianist Lura Johnson.
The concerts don’t just serve rush hour commuters: They also allow BSO musicians to keep performing — albeit without a paycheck.
“As a musician, there is no away time,” said Lisicky. “You can’t just put your instrument down. Instruments need to be played and musicians need to keep their skills at their best.”
Without an official summer program, the musicians have had to invent different ways to keep performing. On July 3, they proceeded with an Independence Day concert at Oregon Ridge Park, organized directly with Baltimore County officials. Some players have sought opportunities to play concerts with other year-round orchestras around the country.
In the meantime, the musicians still need to stay in shape — and the piano in the Charles Center station still asks to be played. Said Lisicky, “People like to move in subways, but if [our performances] get people to listen to live music for a moment, then a nice mission is accomplished. And it keeps music alive for us during this unusual time.”
If you go
The Baltimore Symphony Musicians Summer Subway Series takes place from 4:15-5:30 p.m. on July 29, July 31 and August 2 in the Charles Center subway station.
Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for the Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions.