Screen Shot 2012-09-16 at 11.42.07 AM Joyful noise (“Hallelujah!”) at Macy’s in Philadelphia. (Courtesy of Opera Company of Philadelphia.)

There’s enchantment in that viral video, if you’re lucky enough to have friends who send you the classical-music kind—sublime moments created by singers who nonchalantly slide into, say, a Spanish plaza, bent on linking up and bursting into Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” I am lucky. I don’t find videos like “No Pants Subway Ride”  in my in-box. I get sent the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with “Pantless”—it’s so outrageous, and those men and women ride sans pants with such aplomb, that it keeps you watching. But it’s not inspiring. The classical-music videos offer uplift . . . delight. In fact, these accomplished musicians don’t really fit Wickipedia’s definition of flashmob: “a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and seemingly pointless act for a brief time, and then disperse.

Pointless? Not these missionaries. These players and singers are reaching out to strangers, enticing them to thrill to the glorious Western musical canon. And they do. Shoppers and travelers freeze in place, transfixed. Toddlers jiggle to the music. Little boys wave their hands in the air, conducting. Babies smile.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has funded 1,000 such presentations across the U.S., calls its projects “Random Acts of Culture.” That’s a great way to put it—though the presentations are hardly random happenings. They are cunningly orchestrated! It must be fun to be that solemn bassist suddenly walking through a plaza in Spain, planting his bass, and striking up the first notes of “Ode to Joy.” Then a colleague, a cellist, quietly arrives, then two violinists and a bassoonist. Finally, after the drummer and horns and more violinists have shimmered in, the mini-orchestra is surrounded by singers (one holding his son on his shoulders). They all stay deadpan-serious, but they’ve got to be smiling inside. As I see them sneak into place and hear them strike up the music, I know I am.

If your friends haven’t sent you any Random Acts of Culture videos, never mind. You can access a long list of choral videos (though many are not classical) here.

And see the Knight Foundation’s choice of “best” and “worst” moments of those 1,000 Random Acts of Culture they’ve helped bring into being. (One of the worst: the time a choir burst into song in the research department of the Free Library of Philadelphia. “When they finished, total silence,” the foundation reports. “Nobody even bothered to look up.”)


These are My Picks as the Five Most Fabulous Flashmob Videos:

1. Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” organized by the Opera Company of Philadelphia, in Macy’s Philadelphia, October 2010

The mother of them all—8 million viewers, and counting. Suddenly, after casually mingling with shoppers on the elegant main floor of Macy’s (formerly Wanamaker’s), 650 choristers, responding to the mighty chords struck by the Wanamaker organ, burst into exuberant hallelujahs. A conductor leads from one of the many singer-packed balconies. The organ swells to climax. Shoppers stare in wonder.

It’s thrilling.

(The Opera Company of Philadelphia has deployed singers in 80 other public spaces—these “Random Acts” include Orff’s O Fortuna, with the Philadelphia Orchestra and dancers from five states, in Amtrak’s 30th Street Station in 2012, and Bizet’s “Toreador Song” in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal, in 2011). Click here for more classical videos.

2. Russians Exploding into Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in Moscow, 2012

No, it’s not classical. But it’s a transformational cultural moment—hundreds of young Russian guys and girls jiving and bopping and somersaulting to an American pop standard. On a Russian road. As snow comes down. Having a hell of a good time. Joined by a bride and groom in full regalia, “casually” stepping out of the car and joining the routine. (She tosses her bouquet to the dancers.) Not to mention a squad of soldiers and some guys rhythmically wielding brooms. How on earth did they put together this highly choreographed number?

It’s effervescent. And a hoot.


3. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in a plaza in Sabadell, Spain, 2013

The stealth bassist mentioned above and his colleagues provoke the crowd to cheers.

What could top this?



4. The Copenhagen Philharmonic plays Ravel’s “Bolero in Copenhagen’s Central Train Station, 2011.

It’s that endearing sneaking-up-on-the-unsuspecting-public technique yet again, to great effect. Could it work better for any instrumental piece than “Bolero”? I never even liked “Bolero” till I saw the snare drummer setting up his instrument and initiating the piece’s relentless rhythm, and the instruments literally entering the site one by one.

It’s mesmerizing.

5. Saclà “Funiculi, Funicla” in a London grocery store, 2013

Oh, that contralto sidling into view singing confidently while flourishing a huge fish! Once again, part of the fun of watching a video like this is trying to figure out which of the customers eyeing the veggies is going to burst into song. According to one British blog, this “Shopera” is “brought to us by Saclà, the Pesto Pioneers and Italian foodies’ favourite brand, who served up a great surprise by staging this impromptu Opera in the food aisles.” This crew is especially good at staying in character. That store-aproned blonde soprano, for example, really seems to be concentrating on the jars of mustard she’s adding to the shelf. Who knew we’d soon be hearing her voice? Indeed, all the singers stay in character as they infiltrate the crowd, bellowing the bombastic Italian song we know as “Harken, Harken, Music Sounds Afar.” The baritone fingers the grapefruit (like an ordinary shopper) even after the song has ended.

It’s good, lusty music. And hilarious.

What one all-time favorite musical flashmob would you choose, and why?



Join the conversation

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  • Roz Warren February 8, 2014 at 10:06 am

    Fabulous! Makes me want to drop everything and become a professional flash-mobber. Or at least learn a couple of cool dance moves.

  • Eva Andreola November 3, 2013 at 1:45 am

    I enjoyed it tremendously! Looking forward to more! Thanks!

  • Joe Harkins October 30, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    Good music can inspire everyone, even if their shopping seems hectic. To stop and enjoy a concert puts a smile on all of their faces. And so does this article.

  • Toni Myers October 27, 2013 at 10:12 pm

    Oh, thank you. I loved all of this so much…can’t pick a favorite here unless it’s the contralto with the fish!
    My favorite musical surprises have been on the Paris Metro. The acoustics in the tunnel was part of the thrill, but the YouTubes all sound tinny now, so I picked a very short clip to give you an idea.
    you keep small change in your pocket so you can help fill the hat or the music case.
    Still my all time most thrilling impromptu street concert was at the South Street Pier in 1969. Pete Seeger and his crew on the sloop Clearwater…we just happened by and were forever changed. Not on YouTube of course.
    Thanks for my music-happy Sunday in Seattle!
    PS: Macy’s packed to the gills. I wonder if some of the children present for this thrilling break in routine might choose music as their passion.

  • Susanna Gaertner October 27, 2013 at 7:30 pm

    I like this so much that I am enjoying it in segments, like chocolate, as each video gives a booster kick to my spirit and I want to save some for later. So delighted that you gave us this early holiday present!
    The Russians show just how far they’ve liberated their trans-cultural muses and the Spanish video is especially endearing for the participation of the children. That little girl in the front stayed right there for the entire performance!

  • Liz October 27, 2013 at 4:58 pm

    Brilliant. Thanks so much for this Deborah. The videos are amazing. Can’t wait to see more.

  • Paul Harkins October 27, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    Inspiring and awesome.

    The Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus video recorded at the Macys (Wanamaker) massive organ in Philadelphia brings back memories from 50 years ago of meeting at the Eagle in the great court and listening to daily concerts at noon.