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Bach Breaks: A Lunchtime Jam Session For Bach Lovers05:51
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Under stained glass windows of the four evangelists in Old South Church, strangers meander in, instruments in tow, ready to play the music of the unofficial fifth evangelist: Johann Sebastian Bach.

But there will be no liturgies.

These meetups are called Bach Breaks. The folks who tune and warm up their instruments work in corporate offices or make software or are baristas or are retired. They've gathered with the hopes to make music in lieu of lunch.

"Just like people have a pick up basketball game just for fun, we ought to just come in a place that's beautiful and sounds nice," said Paul Henry Smith who came up the idea of Bach Breaks.

Flute-players Alex Wei, left, and Sarah Hicks play during the first session of Bach Breaks. (Quincy Walters/WBUR)
Flute-players Alex Wei, left, and Sarah Hicks play during the first session of Bach Breaks. (Quincy Walters/WBUR)

Smith is a user experience designer, but has been playing cello most of his life. Smith rented the space at Old South Church for $120 and advertised about the musical gathering on social media. You don't have to pay to play, but Smith says any contribution helps.

He said he's always wanted an ensemble that got together just for the sake of making music.

"Not for a lesson, not for a concert, just for our own enjoyment," Smith said. "It just kind of breaks up your day with a beautiful moment and I think that's important."

At the first gathering, the group played "Sleepers, Awake!" nearly perfectly. Playing Bach's "Arioso" was a bit more challenging, because people seemed to have a different interpretation of the tempo. This is a space for people to play music with each other who otherwise don't have that opportunity. For example, Nicole Rich tried playing in Northeastern's wind ensemble, but said the high-level college musicians can be a little full of themselves.

"Very pretentious," Rich said. Making music, something she's enjoyed since she was a kid, wasn't fun anymore.

"I've been looking for people to play duets with, even, and I haven't been able to find anybody," she said. "So, I'm glad there's somebody out there playing music that I can join."

She said the atmosphere of Bach Breaks is friendlier. It's also definitely more forgiving than other musical opportunities, said flutist Alex Wei.

"There are people who are really good and there's us," he said, laughing. "We didn't do it perfectly. I don't imagine we ever do, exactly. It's just wonderful to try it and bring Bach back to life."

Paul Henry Smith, playing cello, says he's always wanted to be in an ensemble that played music just for the sake of playing music. (Quincy Walters/WBUR)
Paul Henry Smith, playing cello, says he's always wanted to be in an ensemble that played music just for the sake of playing music. (Quincy Walters/WBUR)

While Bach Breaks are about camaraderie for some folks, the gatherings are a matter of convenience for others. Ethan Rosenberg, who plays trombone, is a doctoral candidate studying materials engineering at MIT. He was in the symphony orchestra there, but it took up a lot of time.

"I couldn't do the five hours of rehearsal every week anymore," Rosenberg said. "I've been looking for lower-commitment ways to play with other people and this seems really nice."

Finding out about the group was a coincidence for him. He saw it as a sign. "I just saw the sign on the street outside [Old South Church]," Rosenberg said.

Bach's music can be played with various instrumental combinations, which makes it more open to different people.

The group finishes by playing "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." Smith, the group's organizer, stops playing, takes his cello, and stands back to watch and listen to the ensemble.

"I think it's really sweet. It's 90 degrees outside. It's nice and cool in here," he said. "And nobody here, I bet, is thinking about their work. So, I'm happy."


The next Bach Break is Sept. 11. 

This segment aired on August 23, 2019.

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Quincy Walters Twitter Reporter
Quincy Walters is a general assignment reporter for WBUR.

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