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By Dennis Scholl, Knight Foundation VP/Arts

For the past two years two years, we’ve been hiding baritones in shoe departments, and rolling xylophones down supermarket aisles, surprising people across the country with Random Acts of Culture™. It all started as an experiment. With audiences for traditional performances declining, at Knight Foundation we were looking for a way to remind people of how important the classical arts are to their lives.

About the same time, a friend sent me a video from a market in Valencia, Spain, where a guy selling ham behind a counter bursts into an aria at the top of his lungs. The audience was captivated as six people came out of the crowd to join him. I must have played it a thousand times as I thought, we need to recreate moments like these across the U.S.  by bringing classical performers into people’s everyday lives. At first, we weren’t exactly sure how to go about it, to make sure it was more of a bold surprise than the pleasant background music you expect at the mall on a given Saturday.

With a little trepidation, we did our first one by putting a quartet in the middle of Miami’s County Hall. When we saw a man walking by, waving his hands as if playing the conductor, we knew we were on to something. Since then, we’ve learned a lot through trial – and a few errors. As we celebrate our benchmark 1,000th performance, we wanted to share the best and worst moments of Knight Foundation’s Random Acts of Culture™ program.

Best: The Messiah goes viral: The biggest hit was pulling off a surprise performance in Philadelphia at a Macy’s. Each Saturday, people gather there to hear the world’s largest pipe organ. But they didn’t expect more than 600 choristers to start singing Handel’s Messiah. There were goosebumps and tears. The video went viral, with now close to 8 million views on YouTube, and thousands of comments like this one: “Sheer delight, I wanted to forget my broken hip and dance.”

Worst: Copy cat creates havoc: After that Philadelphia performance was viewed around the world, we were inundated with calls from people wanting to do Random Acts of Culture™ in their communities. Copy cats sprung up everywhere. In Sacramento, Calif., a group tried to pull off a rendition of Handel’s Messiah at the mall food court. When throngs of people showed up, and concerns grew that the floor would collapse, someone called the fire marshal and the mall was evacuated.

Best: Afro-Cuban meets Beethoven: To celebrate the 1,000th Random Act of Culture™, we’ve been putting on large-scale performances in four cities, including Miami. There, we knew we wanted an iconic venue, so we chose the palm treed pedestrian mall of Lincoln Road. Conductor Sam Hyken, in partnership with the Arsht Center, adapted Beethoven’s Ode to Joy into several formats, starting with jazz, then gospel. When the drums heated up into an Afro-Cuban version, the crowd ate it up. Heyken made this 19th century piece music feel like a hometown favorite.

Worst: What are you doing? We learned quickly that not everyone loves a Random Act of Culture™. That’s especially true if they are somehow ‘on task.’ If you’re about to board a plane, you don’t want to be bothered. It doesn’t matter if someone is doing the tango next to you. It’s a distraction. Just ask the woman who tried to stop the horn player at Miami international Airport from continuing with a West Side Story medley by screaming continuously “What are you doing!”

Patrons of the Free Library of Philadelphia had the same reaction, when the opera burst into song in the research department. When they finished, total silence. Nobody even bothered to look up. Then there was the Kroger’s in Macon the Saturday before Thanksgiving. As people went on a hunt for holiday food, musicians found their audience annoyed, especially after one nearly toppled a shopping cart.

Best: Turning opera singers into instant celebrities: One of the great things about Random Acts is that they are a wonderful way to reintroduce local arts organizations to their community. The performances help recruit new fans and in some cases even funds.The Opera Company of Philadelphia got requests for singers to appear at weddings, bar mitzvahs, even store grand openings. Mezzo-Soprano Maren Montalbano, who participated in the Random Act at the Philadelphia Macy’s, still gets recognized in the street.

“They always ask: are you going to do something like that again?” And I reply, “you’ll just have to wait and see.” “You never know what’s going to happen, if you’re in the right place, at the right time. People just might burst into song.” So after close to 1,200 Random Acts of Culture™, the beat goes on, as our many performing arts partners take up the cause and keep the classics alive. Keep an eye out for a Random Act of Culture™ near you.

7 Responses to “The five best – and worst – moments from 1,000 Random Acts of Culture™”

  1. Eda Valero-Figueira says:

    I have only been fortunate to experience one, maybe two random acts of culture, however, even watching them on YouTube brings me to tears. I have been sharing the “Acts” on my FB page every once in a while and all my friends find them as moving as I do. I am an avid opera and symphony-goer, but the unexpected nature of these makes them a gift to the community. I love that and hope the Knight Foundation continues to fund Random Acts of Culture. Thanks, a million times!

  2. Jeanne Hansen says:

    It seems like such a remote possibility that I could ever encounter one of these events live, that I totally depend upon the YouTube videos. Please keep posting them. I’ll keep watching them and forwarding them to friends and family. I love them! What a gift you are giving people like me. Thank you!

  3. Lisa Rockholt says:

    I absolutely LOVE those random acts of culture, and please, please, please keep doing them. I always hope I’m in the right place at the right time to see one in person. I watch them all on YouTube, and being from Charlotte, love those the most. They all bring tears to my eyes. Thank you for reminding everyone about the beauty of music.

  4. gloria says:

    The “Opera en el Mercado ” The Opera in the market it is not in Seville it is Valencia.

  5. John says:

    I’m 27 and until recently (a few months ago) fell apon the youtube videos, wish Texas would have a few here, I strive to be a violin player as great as Anna Tifu one day

  6. Abdo says:

    Just wonderful.

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