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Cellists get on board to mark Bach's birthday

Cellists get on board to mark Bach's birthday
Cellist and guests fill the waiting room of the historic 1924 Southern Pacific Railroad Depot at the Larry Zarian Transportation Center in Glendale on Saturday, March 21, 2015. (Photo by Mike Mullen)

Johann Sebastian Bach would have turned 330 on Saturday, but his compositions are safely in the hands of some local young musicians, who paid a birthday tribute to the old master in an afternoon concert at the Larry Zarian Transportation Center — the site formerly known as the Glendale Southern Pacific Railroad Depot. The local event was part of a worldwide occasion called Bach in the Subways, now in its fourth year and celebrated everywhere from Austria to Australia, Nigeria to the Netherlands, and there's no doubt that the King of Baroque would have been proud.

The whole thing was like a scene from an MGM musical, set off by the clang-clang-clang of a trolley bell on a balmy early spring afternoon. Listeners quickly filed into the quaint old train station, huddling up in droves on the old wooden benches, right alongside the young musicians. It wasn't long before the place was standing room only, with a pile of half-open cello cases squeezed into the corner near the vending machine. Over a dozen young cellists from the Pasadena Conservatory of Music delivered the rich, gorgeous strains of Bach's best, including the Musette duet, Rigadoon (with pizzicato) and Hunters' Chorus. They also broke up the classical repertoire with a blues number called "Cello Baby Boogie" and a sonorous rendition of "Happy Birthday to You," all to rousing applause. Some onlookers were parents, some were younger and older siblings, some were elderly classical fans, and some had just wandered in from an afternoon walk along the tracks, drawn by the strains of melodies that have lasted three centuries.

Bach in the Subways is the brainchild of Dale Henderson, a cello prodigy who made his professional debut at age 13 with the Buffalo Philharmonic, only to discover the power of performing Bach's suites in the NYC subways as a grown-up. In 2011, Henderson invited two musicians to join him on the platform on Bach's birthday, and the tradition spread. Today, thousands of musicians participate in 129 cities in 39 countries. Glendale, a town that is short on a legit subway stop, offered up its rail station, a transfer-point for Amtrak, Metrolink, Greyhound, Metro, and the Glendale Beeline. Built in 1923, the romantic Mission Revival-style building was ideal for the dreamy music.

Cellist Rebecca Merblum, Strings Department chair at PCM and member of the Azmari Quartet, spearheaded the local concert as soon as she learned about Bach in the Subways and she was pleased with the turnout. "I've done projects in art galleries and outside outdoor festivals before, but this space was perfect," Merblum said, following the performance. "I just really wanted the kids to experience the sharing element of it, developing a relationship with the listener."

"Sometimes," Merblum added, "when you're performing onstage, it can feel sterile between you and the audience, and this took away all the boundaries. The people were right there with us, not sitting against us, and they were really listening."

"The acoustics were great," said Niklas Bertani, one of the other instructors who performed with the students at the event. "We didn't get to practice here so we really didn't know what to expect."

The students — who performed under the tutelage of Merblum and Bertani, along with instructors Richard Mooney, Jim Lee, and Elizabeth Pattengale — all varied in experience. Some had been playing the cello for 10 years, others for just under six months. But together, the group brought the grandeur and the heart of Bach's complex harmonies and counterpoints to an unlikely stop.

Among the exuberant young student musicians was one adult learner, Jill Harris, who has been studying cello with Jim Lee and was overjoyed to join the kids on this special day. "I was just so happy to be a part of it," Harris said after the show. "I came late to the cello. I studied piano and voice for years but the cello is so much harder to play."

As the younger cellists and their parents filed out of the old depot to take group photos, Harris looked to the old, high ceilings and added, "My cello definitely sounded better than ever in here!"

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DANIEL WEIZMANN is a frequent contributor to Marquee.

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