Not often do I get requests when I busk the streets.
Apart from standards such as “Irish Eyes,” “Danny Boy” and “the jig that Custer used,” I can count 35 years’ worth on the flying fingers of my hands.
So I’m surprised in Lexington when a man with visible dollar bills in hand asks for the largo from Anton Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.”
Heard me play it last week — and by coincidence had it assigned this week as a practice tune for his violin.
By no coincidence other than that of the family that plays together stays together, his wife and son, about 12, seated on the bench before me are also learning the instrument and, therefore, the tune.
I pin the sheet to the stand, not so much apologizing for having to read it as admitting that the tempo is too deliberate for me to trust to memory. And:
“Should warn you that the last note will launch into a jig called ‘Mrs. Cole,’ composed by Turlough O’Carolan, one of those wandering Celtic bards who named songs for anyone who’d feed them a few days.”
Luckily, my banter and their laughter cause a few other folks to stop and satisfy curiosity.
This does not surprise me. This I am versed in, and so I look to the others when I re-title the piece: “New World Symphony & Old World Compensation.”
Ordinarily I play Dvorak’s largo on my high-pitched sopranino recorder, but with a gathering so close, I opt for the tenor — made all the more resonant by the cool day’s crisp acoustics.
Always recall that an American who met the Czech composer during his 1893 trip down the Mississippi put lyrics to the largo, transforming it into a spiritual titled “Going Home.” That thought conveys the piece as much as all 10 fingers and all my breath.
A few other passersby stop passing by. What could be more riveting than a low-register spiritual in the open air of this high-tech world?
As I hear it on recordings, the last note blooms like a flower, and so the opening of “Mrs. Cole” jumps in sudden celebration. The bloom reflected in their faces, the jig swaggers with trills in the upper register as I cut and caper away from the music stand.
Get back behind it for the last note, holding it for an up-tempo slip back into Dvorak’s largo. Not so fast and wild as the jig, but jaunty enough that each face blooms again and again.
Wondering what I might do with the last note — up an octave? down a scale? a sudden punch? a flourishing arpeggio? the tease of E-flat? the all-purpose B? — I may be lucky that the traffic light on Mass Ave. makes the decision for me.
For those who know downtown Lexington — and for those who do not — my spot is almost directly opposite the half-intersection of Waltham Street. I like to think that Paul Revere might have stopped right next door, as I always do, for a cup of Peet’s dark roast.
Red lights rarely cause much backup, so I barely notice it. But now there’s an SUV blasting the last measures of my up-tempo “World” with the heavy bass of something impossible to discern throbbing from its open windows.
This, too, I am versed in: Simply repeat and improvise on those measures, maybe hold or trill some notes, until the car moves and the sound dissolves further along Revere’s horse’s hoofprints.
Ditto for my “Reel for Pipe and Siren,” “Hornpipe for Whistle and Barking Dog” and “Air for Recorder and Helicopter.”
Awaiting the resolution of this showdown, my small audience nods and grins.
As the light turns green, I hold the last note with my left hand and raise my right thumb to the clueless driver.
Another alley-oop for the well-versed, as I point the tenor at the departing SUV and turn a mock glare at the novice violinists before me:
“THAT is your ‘New World Symphony’!”
Tips are as generous as the laughter heard ’round the curb.
Jack Garvey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Custer’s 7th Calvary rode to “Garryowen,” a “quickstep” named for a neighborhood in Limerick, Ireland, and later taken as the name of a Montana town near the battlefield.