Fashion

The Violin and the Street

Music is my life. And right now things are going well. But I don’t want to keep doing this forever. It’s too stressful – when the police come and tell me to leave, I immediately have to go.

By Nina Verdelli Hair Make-Up/Kian Stave Photos ©Icarus Blake

Black Scoop Neck Dress in Stretch Silk Jersey Black Shrug with Elbow Sleeves in Rayon Nylon Crinkle By Eileen Fisher Collection Photo © Icarus Blake

Beautiful like an aged Grace Kelly, graceful like one of Degas’ dancers; when Susan Keser, 54, finishes performing Bach’s “Air from the Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major”, the audience bursts into a thunderous applause. Her stage is the balcony of an old building in the East Village. Her audience, the neighbors peeking out their windows. The first time I saw her, she looked like an apparition – grey hair pulled up in a bun, minimalist black dress, long neck, and refined movements. I was getting out of the crowded and squalid Times Square subway station in Manhattan. Susan was standing in a corner playing the violin. The grace and ability she displayed would have made any great Orchestra’s soloists simply envious. Around her, a multitude of people were captured by her elegance and her angelic music. I was running late that day, but I just could not leave, wondering what must have had happened to this woman for her to end up playing in the subways. Her porcelain skin does not bear the signs of a life spent pursuing the virtuosity of art, more often than not, outside the mainstream of society. Only her eyes, veiled of melancholy, reveal the hardship she has been through.

Mrs. Keser, how do you like playing in New York’s subway stations and parks?

Most of the times, I like it. I mean, there are pros and cons, like everywhere. But I couldn’t imagine a better place to be for a musician like me. It is probably the only city in the US where you can make a living doing what I am doing. Especially New Yorkers – more so than tourists – are fond of fine arts and classical music. Although constantly in a hurry, they make time to listen to me when I’m playing. Many of them contact me afterwards to ask me to perform at a party, or at a wedding. I make a living out of their appreciation. This wasn’t exactly my childhood dream though…

What was your childhood dream? 

I grew up in Indiana. My mom was a pianist, my dad a cellist, my sister an opera singer. When still an undergrad at University of Indiana, I fancied working at the Philadelphia’s or – God forbid – at the Chicago’s Symphony Orchestra. I could see myself playing surrounded by cultured people all the time. I am good at what I do, you know?

Black Scoop Neck Dress in Stretch Silk Jersey Black Shrug with Elbow Sleeves in Rayon Nylon Crinkle By Eileen Fisher Collection Photo © Icarus Blake

I do. But that dream never came true?

It did actually, three times. Only for brief periods, though. First I was hired by the Cologne’s State Opera House. Very prestigious – the best Orchestra I ever played for. It was back in the ‘80s, when Germany was still divided. I was subbing for a lady who was pregnant, and when she came back I was out. I then moved to Italy, where I had friends. I jumped on a plane just like that (she snaps her fingers). At the beginning, I performed in the streets, in the parks, wherever I could… Once I played in Piazza della Fontana di Trevi, in Rome, for hours under the snow. I had to make a living, and I have always liked to be self-sufficient. After I while, I got a job in Genoa, at the Carlo Felice Theatre. Great experience. At the time, however, I was dating a Turkish guy whose visa had expired. When he left, I followed him to Istanbul.

Wouldn’t you want to play in an Orchestra now?

I’d love to, of course. I auditioned in many different places, with no success. And each time I felt like a fool. The greyer my hair becomes, the harder it is, both in conventional and unconventional places.

You grey hair is actually very chic… 

Maybe, but Orchestras want younger performers. And in the streets, it is difficult for my Ave Marias to compete with some rap band’s latest releases. But I don’t give up: I manage my schedule in order to avoid overlapping. Plus, frankly, I have quite the success when I play, especially among children, my favorite audience. They seem to have an innate sense of music – when they listen to me and start dancing, they make my day.

At this point can you tell us how much money you make?

I can’t give you a real number: it fluctuates. Some days it’s really good. Other days I barely make enough to pay the metro-card. The crisis made it harder. But overall I can’t complain – by playing two full days a week in the summer and four in the winter, I earn enough for me and my husband to survive and to pay New York expensive rent.

Do you ever regret being a violinist?

No. I actually think I could have been nothing else. Music is my life. And right now things are going well. But I don’t want to keep doing this forever. It’s too stressful – when the police come and tell me to leave, I immediately have to go.

How come – is playing in the subways illegal?

Absolutely not. But sometimes cops seem to enjoy harassing me; particularly the youngest ones, fresh off police school. Or the ones who are ethnically different from me.

New York subway stations – you better find another angel.

photo©Icarus Blake

BIO

Susan Montgomery Keser was born in Indiana in January 27, 1958. She began playing the piano at the age of 3, and the violin at the age of 9. She graduated from Indiana University with a Bachelor Degree in Music. From 1981 to 2006 Susan traveled and worked throughout Europe and the Middle East. In addition to English, she is fluent in German and Turkish. In her career she was featured in three major world-class symphonies – The Gürzenich-Orchester der Stadt Köln, in Germany; The Teatro Carlo Felice di Genova, in Italy; and the Istanbul Devlet Opera ve Balesi Orkestra, in Turkey. Today Susan performs in the streets of New York, as well as for private gatherings. Her favorite spots are the Times Square and Union Square subway stations, and Central Park. She enjoys playing the classics, Antonio Vivaldi above all, but her repertoire also includes some pop pieces such as Michael Jackson’s and the Coldplay’s songs. Susan is happily married, and she has a son who currently lives in Astoria. In her life, she has only played that one violin that shows in the pictures. For more information, please visit her website: www.newyorkviolinist.com

3 Responses to “The Violin and the Street”

  1. KAREN MCDONALD says:

    MS .SUSAN KESER.
    YOU ARE AMAZING!!!
    MY NAME IS KAREN MCDONALD
    I WAS WALKING THREW PENN STATION 5/14/14 AROUND 8:15!
    I FELT YOUR MUSIC ,IT LEAD ME TO YOU!!!
    I PURCHASED YOUR RELAXING CD!!
    I,VE BEEN LISTEING TO IT ALL DAY ALL NIGHT!!
    PLEASE!!! LET ME KNOW YOUR NEXT PERFORMES..
    YOUI ARE A TRUE BLESSING TO THE UNIVERSE!!!
    ALL MY LOVE ALL MY LIFE
    KAREN MCDONALD

  2. semadar ben yaacov says:

    Hello Susan,
    My name is Madi and I met you recently in Pen. station around 12th of september. I was astonished from your performance, we talked breifly and I told you i’m from Israel. I boght your CD which I am listening all day long. You told me that you decided to be a freelancer and leave the orchestra.
    when I listen to your music I feel like it touched my soul, it was very pleasent and angelic and unworldly. I would like to send you a CD of Jewish Classical music, the soloist is my teacher Giora Feydman (he plays the clarinet) which I hope you will like. Inorder to send you the CD I would like an address to send you it. If you are interested send me the address to: danben008@gmail.com to semadar ben yaacov
    I hope you will continue to perform, and I wish you well and you are always welcome in Israel.

  3. Diana says:

    Hi Susan
    I just want to say Thank you !! When I am luky to hear your performance , you made my morning !! You always made me smile. Your music is good for the soul .I wish My kids can see one of your performance .