Two days after Johann Sebastian Bach's 333rd birthday, John Koen pulled out his cello at the SEPTA Broad Street Line's Walnut-Locust stop.
Sitting just steps from the turnstiles, a stark contrast to his usual place on stage at the Kimmel Center, the Philadelphia Orchestra cellist dove into Bach's Cello Suite No. 6 in D major.
His free lunchtime performance Friday was part of a worldwide initiative known as "Bach in the Subways." Three more subway shows will unfold this afternoon, including one with eight string players from the Philadelphia Orchestra, who will convene at 4:45 p.m. at Jefferson Station.
"I'm in high school, so it's not often that I get to see someone from the orchestra perform," said 12th grader Grace DiMeo. "Not a lot of people have the funds to see an artist play work like this."
"Bach in the Subways" is a grassroots campaign, with volunteer organizers in 150 cities worldwide this year, including amateur organist Jim Pavlock in Philadelphia.
"I want it to inspire kids to want to play music," Pavlock said. "But I also just want to watch it put a smile on commuters' faces as they come across a cello or a pipe organ planted in the middle of Jefferson Station."
Competing with the roar of trains rolling through the station, Koen's cello performance attracted a modest but attentive crowd, including teenagers shouldering backpacks, grandmothers with toddlers in tow, runners in shorts, and others among the diverse crowd that always fills Philadelphia's SEPTA stations.
"It's beautiful, and I admire him for coming out in the winter," Peter Bartholomew, a recent graduate of Temple University with a jazz-bass minor, said, pointing to the two tiny humidifiers on Koen's instrument. "It's brave because the air is really dry, which isn't ideal for the wooden instrument."
Koen's virtuosic bow strokes cut through the arcadelike sounds of SEPTA Key cards being swiped and school kids shouting, like a new composition drawing layers of sound from the surroundings. "It gives you a chance to be experimental, so slowing down or holding a note as the train is drawing near," said Koen. "The challenge is part of the intrigue."
To keep its performances free, "Bach in the Subways" discourages participating musicians from accepting donations. Pavlock is looking to expand the program in Philadelphia next year. Interested musicians can register online at bachinthesubways.org. "It's open to anyone," he said. "The only requirement is that you don't do it for money and that you play Bach."
Other performances today: