New York’s best mezzanine minstrels gathered at Grand Central Terminal on Tuesday to audition for a coveted spot in the MTA’s Music Under New York program.
Although any artist can perform in the city’s subway system — as long as they follow MTA rules — landing a spot in the program allows musicians to book certain time slots in specific stations and gives them a subway-themed banner with their artist or band name. The program currently features around 300 musicians or bands.
“This is an opportunity to bring music into the system and transform our journeys,” said Sandra Bloodworth, the director of MTA Arts & Design. “This is one of the biggest bureaucracies in the world, but we have kept this program as a grass-roots feel that is respectful of musicians and artists. It’s the best gig on earth.”
The MTA whittled down a pool of 309 applicants this year to 70 finalists for its 31st annual audition. Those finalists — competing for 25 openings — had five minutes to perform publicly in the hall, in front of 30 judges and many more commuters. Performances were as diverse as the city itself, featuring Kurdish one-man-bands, Latin fusion and traditional Brazilian music.
Many of those trying out were classically trained. Several already have performed in the subways, but felt it had become difficult to find a prime playing location on their own. Among those was Peter Delgrosso, who leads a French horn quartet aptly named the Metropolitan Horn Authority.
“It’s a joke, but there’s actually something to be said about spreading French horn awareness,” Delgrosso said. “I think the French horn is a sound people don’t immediately recognize, but they hear it all over in movies or famous classical pieces. People love it, whether they know it or not.”
Playing underground can be more intimidating than one might think, according to cellist Sean Grissom, who has been a part of the program for 30 years and was a judge for this year’s auditions. It can be daunting to find a sound that appropriately fills cavernous subway stations while also capturing the attention of preoccupied commuters.
“You have to sort of create a stage when you play, cut through all phones and still make an impact. There has to be a real honesty with your playing and presentation,” said Grissom. “If you can make an impact down here, playing on a stage is a cakewalk.”
Scores will be tallied and winning auditions announced in the coming weeks. Those performers will be able to reserve time slots to play at some of the most well-trafficked areas of the subway system, including concourses, platforms and mezzanines in Times Square-42nd Street, 59th Street-Columbus Circle and Fulton Center, among others.
Getting noticed underground can lead to more than a quick buck. Samantha Gillogly, a violinist, was offered a wedding gig after a couple spotted her playing on an L train platform. She was trying out Tuesday as part of a world music trio called Bazaar.
“I’ve done a bunch of busking in the subways myself just on solo violin and it’s a really fun way to get out, play with people and meet other New Yorkers,” Gillogly said.