The commute gets cultured

Posted on November 16, 2011 by Heather Redfern - Also by this author

The average daily rail commute can be quite mundane — wait at the station, get on the train and read, catch up on work or nap on the trip. Almost every passenger is in his or her own “zone.” And while this is usually the case for Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s (SEPTA) regional rail passengers, the authority recently partnered with local music organizations to add a little culture to the regular rail routine.

Normally, one would find the Philadelphia Orchestra performing at one of the city’s major concert halls, not at the train station. But on a Friday morning, SEPTA passengers exiting or waiting for their trains at Market East Station were treated to a rush hour performance of Beethoven’s Sextet by members of the Orchestra. The concert attracted quite a crowd looking to start their day with something other than the standard station Muzak.

For those whose musical tastes lean a little more toward jazz than classical, the Sixth Floor Trio jazz band performed an impromptu midweek morning rush concert at Suburban Station, sending passengers off to work and school with smiles.

The performances weren’t limited to the stations. To promote its upcoming production of Carmen, members of the Opera Company of Philadelphia spent a week riding various routes between SEPTA’s three Center City Stations — 30th Street, Suburban and Market East — getting up during the ride and surprising riders by singing selections from the Bizet classic in the train aisles.

Philadelphia has a rich arts and music scene, and the pop-up concerts not only gave SEPTA an opportunity to start or end our passengers’ days on a different “note,” but also allowed the authority to support the city’s cultural institutions and introduce thousands of commuters to music they might not otherwise give a listen.

While the Orchestra’s concert was held to promote the organization’s “Listen with Your Heart” campaign, an initiative aimed at raising public awareness and funding, the Sixth Floor Trio and Opera Company mini-concerts were part of the Knight Foundation-sponsored “Random Acts of Culture” (RACs) program. The program consists of spontaneous performances held at unexpected locations to create a sense of community through a shared experience, introduce the arts to the general public and encourage community members to patronize musical performances at traditional venues. In addition to the SEPTA trains and stations, RACs have been held at Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market and Macy’s.

The Knight Foundation’s Erik Lambertson, a daily SEPTA Regional Rail rider, got the idea for the Opera RACs at SEPTA locations on his Media/Elwyn Line commute.

“I realized each rider was isolated from all the others, sharing a car, a commute, yet still disconnected. I looked around at all the tired people and decided there would be nothing more uplifting and surprising than a rendition of opera on the railroad,” he said “After quick collaboration with the Opera Company, SEPTA and the Knight Foundation, the plan was set in motion. The performances went exactly according to plan. We completed 20 Random Acts of Culture in total, each one to a resounding applause.”

“The concerts were well-received by our riders,” said SEPTA GM Joseph Casey. “The RACs were most likely the most pleasant service interruptions our passengers have experienced.”

Let the rider beware — the next time you are traveling on SEPTA, the person sitting next to you at the station or on the train could be a professional performer and you could be treated to a Random Act of Culture. 

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