The five best – and worst – moments from 1,000 Random Acts of Culture™

Arts / Article

For the past two years two years, we’ve been hiding baritones in shoe departments, and rolling xylophones down supermarket aisles, surprising people across the country with Random Acts of Culture™.

It all started as an experiment. With audiences for traditional performances declining, at Knight Foundation we were looking for a way to remind people of how important the classical arts are to their lives.

About the same time, a friend sent me a video from a market in Seville, Spain, where a guy selling ham behind a counter bursts into an aria at the top of his lungs. The audience was captivated as six people came out of the crowd to join him. I must have played it a thousand times as I thought, we need to recreate moments like these across the U.S.  by bringing classical performers into people’s everyday lives.

At first, we weren’t exactly sure how to go about it, to make sure it was more of a bold surprise than the pleasant background music you expect at the mall on a given Saturday.

With a little trepidation, we did our first one by putting a quartet in the middle of Miami’s County Hall. When we saw a man walking by, waving his hands as if playing the conductor, we knew we were on to something.

Since then, we’ve learned a lot through trial – and a few errors. As we celebrate our benchmark 1,000th performance, we wanted to share the best and worst moments of Knight Foundation’s Random Acts of Culture™ program.

Best: The Messiah goes viral: The biggest hit was pulling off a surprise performance in Philadelphia at a Macy’s. Each Saturday, people gather there to hear the world’s largest pipe organ. But they didn’t expect more than 600 choristers to start singing Handel’s Messiah. There were goosebumps and tears. The video went viral, with now close to 8 million views on YouTube, and thousands of comments like this one: “Sheer delight, I wanted to forget my broken hip and dance.”

Worst: Copy cat creates havoc: After that Philadelphia performance was viewed around the world, we were inundated with calls from people wanting to do Random Acts in their communities. Copy cats sprung up everywhere. In Sacramento, Calif., a group tried to pull off a rendition of Handel’s Messiah at the mall food court. When throngs of people showed up, and concerns grew that the floor would collapse, someone called the fire marshal and the mall was evacuated.

Best: Afro-Cuban meets Beethoven: To celebrate the 1,000th Random Act, we’ve been putting on large-scale performances in four cities, including Miami. There, we knew we wanted an iconic venue, so we chose the palm treed pedestrian mall of Lincoln Road. Conductor Sam Hyken, in partnership with the Arsht Center, adapted Beethoven’s Ode to Joy into several formats, starting with jazz, then gospel. When the drums heated up into an Afro-Cuban version, the crowd ate it up. Heyken made this 19th century piece music feel like a hometown favorite.

Worst: What are you doing? We learned quickly that not everyone loves a Random Act of Culture. That’s especially true if they are somehow ‘on task.’ If you’re about to board a plane, you don’t want to be bothered. It doesn’t matter if someone is doing the tango next to you. It’s a distraction. Just ask the woman who tried to stop the horn player at Miami international Airport from continuing with a West Side Story medley by screaming continuously “What are you doing!”  

Patrons of the Free Library of Philadelphia had the same reaction, when the opera burst into song in the research department. When they finished, total silence. Nobody even bothered to look up. Then there was the Kroger’s in Macon the Saturday before Thanksgiving. As people went on a hunt for holiday food, musicians found their audience annoyed, especially after one nearly toppled a shopping cart.

Best: Turning opera singers into instant celebrities: One of the great things about Random Acts is that they are a wonderful way to reintroduce local arts organizations to their community. The performances help recruit new fans and in some cases even funds. The Opera Company of Philadelphia got requests for singers to appear at weddings, bar mitzvahs, even store grand openings. Mezzo-Soprano Maren Montalbano, who participated in the Random Act at the Philadelphia Macy’s, still gets recognized in the street.

“They always ask: are you going to do something like that again?” And I reply, “you’ll just have to wait and see.”

“You never know what’s going to happen, if you’re in the right place, at the right time. People just might burst into song.”

So after close to 1,200 Random Acts of Culture™, the beat goes on, as our many performing arts partners take up the cause and keep the classics alive. Keep an eye out for a Random Act of Culture™  near you.

Dennis Scholl is Knight Foundations vice president/arts.