Monday, September 28, 2009

Underground Music

If you happened to stroll by the Oak St. Beach-Michigan Ave. underpass yesterday afternoon, you’d have heard a delightful sound beckoning you to follow it to its source. When you did, you’d come upon two men standing in the middle of the tunnel dressed in thin shirts, jeans, and sneakers. Amidst the cream-colored walls and paint peeling from the ceiling, Trent Santomastago and Ryan Burnett played a flute and alto saxophone to the tune of canonical duets by Georg Philipp Telemann, a German composer in the 17th and 18th centuries.

“We tried playing on Michigan Ave.,” said Santomastago, 37, who has a thin face sporting a scruffy beard and mustache. “The acoustics are better here.”

“We have the advantage here of it reverberating,” explained Burnett, 25, of the music. “It’s a very pleasant sort of sound.”

He wasn’t the only one who thought so. Among the tourists and the residents, the runners and the bikers, the couples and the groups and the lone passersby, one or more people would occasionally stop to listen. Most at least turned their heads as they passed.

There was the guy on the bicycle who stopped and asked permission to take a photograph of them— and proceeded to shoot several. There was the woman on her cell phone, pushing a boy in a stroller, who stopped before reaching the men, pushed the stroller towards the opposite wall, and proceeded to crouch down to speak to the boy while looking at the musicians. There was the man who stopped to deposit some cash into the music case laid open on the cement ground, only to be followed immediately by another man and then another.

There were, too, the couple that found themselves so engrossed in their conversation that they passed within feet of Santomastago and Burnett without seeming to notice them. And the woman for whom an animated cell phone conversation was more interesting than the sound of classical baroque music beneath the median of Lake Shore Dr.

This is, after all, a big city.

Yet reports of the decline in popularity of classical music seem not to hold here. “We do some modern stuff for fun,” said Santomastago, who, like Burnett, speaks softly. “But it doesn’t get the reception that this does.”

Trent Santomastogo and Ryan Burnett. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Nestled between the wall and a couple of music stands, the duo bounced slightly as they played. Santomastago tapped his right foot in time with the music, which seemed to cascade out of the instruments and float down the tunnel. Neither had an imposing demeanor; when a woman applauded at the end of a piece, Burnett simply nodded slightly and muttered a week “Thank you.”

The two first met while in college at Northeastern Illinois University. Both had been playing their instruments since elementary school. These days, they continue to take private lessons while occasionally playing professionally. Coming out to the underpass two or three times a week is “a nice way to get some practice in and make a few bucks doing it,” according to Santomastago. (Never mind the occasional loud motorcycle passing overhead or the intermittent stench of bacteria that wafts by as a person passes.)

As for money, the two had to shell out a hundred dollars apiece for city permits to play music in a public place. But, says Santomastago, “We’ve made it back and then some.”

Santomastago and Burnett may have stood out from those around them when they played yesterday afternoon, but in one way, they fit right in: Behind them, propped up against the wall, were their bikes, ready to take the men away when the music ended.

Santomastago and Burnett play "Allegro Spirittoso Minuet," by Georg Philipp Telemann

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