European street musicians: Classical music on the corners

A Portland writer/photographer follows her ears to find singers and buskers bringing life to central squares

Story and photos by ANGELA ALLEN
Video by Jan van Santen.

Telemann? Fasch? The notes pave a route, like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs. We keep walking, ears wide open.

After twists and turns, we locate the source. The melody resonates under an arch near the Zwinger, one of Dresden’s opulent Baroque buildings. A brass quartet is blowing in baseball hats and rain parkas.

A brass quartet plays baroque music in Dresden.

A brass quartet plays Baroque music in Dresden.

The group lacks the grandeur of the reconstructed arts complex, but we’re not the only passers-by, charmed and mesmerized. Someone throws a 5-Euro bill into the empty horn case and grabs a CD.

accordionist on steps

An accordionist, with her chair and money jar, waits for passers-by to listen and donate a Euro or two near a Dresden viewpoint along the Elba River.

Music rules in Central Europe from street corner to opera house. It’s as commonplace as tourists and pilsners. Presentations are freewheeling, but the tunes’ roots most often spring from the well-known Western classical canon.

Not always. Free jazz and bluegrass, an occasional opera aria, drift about en plein air in public places that can draw a crowd.

accordion and singer 2

A boy band features a violinist and a squeezeboxer in Dresden’s Altstadt (Old Town).

At lunch in Dresden‘s Altstadt (old town), we hear a boy-band featuring a squeeze-boxer and a fiddler. The group croons in English.

fiddler on bridge

Another afternoon, while in Prague, we marvel at roughed-up bluegrass performed by a dancing fiddler’s band. The violin was not always an elegant well-respected instrument; it served itinerant entertainers quite well. And so it does here.

hang and trumpet

Hang musicians jam with a horn player in Amsterdam, outside the Rijksmuseum.

In Amsterdam, “hang” (a tone-driven Swiss-made metal steel drum played on the musician’s lap) percussionists riff with a horn player outside the busy Rijksmuseum. Bicyclists stop occasionally to listen. They outnumber pedestrians.

Buskers play folk music in Dublin, Ireland. This lively street is one of their usual stages.

Buskers play folk music in Dublin, Ireland. This lively street is one of their usual stages.

As far north as Ireland, two women folk musicians set up shop on a Dublin street corner, and nearby, in Sandycove, near James Joyce’s famous tower where he set the first chapter of Ulysses, a saxman blows a mournful tune rather than a jazz standard.

dublin saxman

A saxophonist blows a melancholy tune near Sandycove outside Dublin.

And farther south, a curvy soprano in sneakers, accompanied by an accordionist, belts out a Verdi aria on Florence’s Piazza della Repubblica. A dog and its opera-smitten owner look on with shoppers, tourists and students. Some sing along, stretched out in the sun.

verdi singing

An opera soprano sings Verdi on the Piazza della Repubblica in Florence, Italy.

Consider it a rare and usually rainy day when walkers can’t catch a few measures. Free-spirited music reverberates unscheduled in Dresden’s wide-open cobblestone town squares and on Prague’s pedestrian-only 650-year-old Charles Bridge. Weather permitting, Amsterdam’s museum district and central “Dam” host musicians pitching for tips and CD sales.

violinist on bridge

A fiddler leans against a wall leading up to the Prague Castle. He plays there often.

These musicians outshine Portland buskers. Some are established instrumentalists and singers who’ve attended conservatories. Some play for the fun of it and a few extra euros. The sadder version, such as the fiddler as worn as his violin case leaning against the well-traveled wall leading up to14th- century Prague Castle, hopes for an audience.

Then there’s Bartosz Zboralski. He took up the cello at age 6 and studied at Ignacy Jan Paderewski Academy of Music in Poznan, Poland. He plays a slimmed-down electric cello (similar to the acoustic cello without the acoustic chamber) and plugs it into a “loop station,” enabling him to create delays, distortion and choruses.

He sets up a chair near the Frauenkirche, the lavish church that completes Dresden’s reconstructed skyline. Like any social-media savvy Millennial, Zboralski displays his Facebook name, “loop trigger,” along with his open cello case.

His home now, Dresden is a beautiful city like Poznan, destroyed in World War II and later rebuilt. “I was thinking how to use the cello in another way than playing just classic music,” Zboralski said. “I wanted to create something new.”

facebooking cellist with background

Electric cellist Bartosz Zboralski, aka “loop trigger” on Facebook, attended conservatory in Poland. He plays here near the rebuilt Frauenkirche in Dresden.

So it goes on Europe’s street corners: tied to the old, open to the new.

fiddler next to bridge ornament

Photo above and those below, Czech Republic musicians play everything from bluegrass to Bach on Prague’s 650-year-old pedestrian-only Charles Bridge. The long-necked blond woman is playing a bucket drum (not shown).

cellist on bridge

prague fiddler

long neck drummer

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She pursues poetry and photography and teaches creative writing in the Portland schools. 

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