An elderly Russian chess player who charges two dollars per game often sets up shop on the patio outside the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square. A consistent crowd of tourists wanders in and out of the adjacent Holyoke Center, but this Mass. Ave. hotspot has recently developed a musical dimension: a public piano now graces the street corner, one of many pianos installed by Luke Jerram’s international “Play Me, I’m Yours” project. In celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Celebrity Series of Boston which features local performances by internationally recognized musicians, the project has installed 75 pianos on the streets of Boston from September 27 to October 14.
In the middle of the lunch rush on an unusually warm October Tuesday, the piano, sturdily perched beside ABP’s familiar iron patio, is attracting a variety of musicians, from a group of college kids hammering out “Chopsticks” to seasoned piano players armed with 10 pages of sheet music. Strolling down Mass. Ave, the diligent serenade of a ten-year-old emerges. She is surrounded by her gushing parents, passerbys who occasionally dip in to brush at her keys.
By evening, the piano is occupied by a young self-described “hipster,” a former member of the Boston University Arts Initiative that worked with the Celebrity Series to bring the “Play Me, I’m Yours” project to Boston. The recent BU grad sits solidly on the piano bench with his newsboy cap pulled slightly down. “Pianos really bring people together...people who otherwise wouldn’t associate with one another,” he says. “Accessible, public art like this—it’s what makes a community.”
The self-taught musician has amassed a small audience of strangers who hum along to his heartfelt acoustic-rock performance. A young, tired looking woman with two worn duffel bags and a long brown coat sings along enthusiastically to his rendition of “City of Ruins” by Bruce Springsteen, his “all-time favorite song.” Meanwhile, those who stream out of the Holyoke Center pause for a minute, swaying calmly to the music and sometimes snapping a picture or two.
A few quiet minutes after he finishes his performance, the empty bench is approached by a former Harvard librarian with long white hair and a weathered expression, who says he was enjoying the freedom of his recent retirement. He wrestles his way through a group of eastern European tourists to reach the piano, taking advantage of the cloudy fall evening to use the instrument that he has studied for more than four decades. “I actually had a dream that I saw someone playing the piano in the street,” he says. A smile creeps across his face. The following day, he said, he stumbled across one of Boston’s newly installed pianos. “It was wonderful,” he remembers. Since his discovery, he’s been playing the pianos in different locations across Boston.
The librarian departs and a flustered Harvard sophomore hustling out of Boylston Gate notices the piano by ABP as she rushes. She stops to sit down at the bench so rarely empty, and begins to issue a smooth rendition of “Bella’s Lullaby” from Twlight a piece she taught herself. Long after the performance, idle notes can be heard into the early hours of the morning.
Two days later, the piano is still subject to a steady stream of eager musicians. One young couple waits for 15 minutes to use the piano, rushing excitedly to the bench the second its former occupant leaves. The woman sits close to her male companion with closed eyes and a lazy smile, singing along quietly as he performs “Hold On,” by Muse—one of his favorite songs to listen to and to play.
Another woman, flanked by two young children, exits the Holyoke Center and the instrument catches her by surprise (“Ooo! There’s a piano!” she exclaims). She eagerly jumps on the empty bench to test her memory of “Heart and Soul,” as the youngsters join in, wandering aimlessly and playfully through the instrument’s upper register.