Busking Bach

A local violinist takes his talents to the streets

Michael Korpi, Jr. plays his violin to a crowd of busy shoppers. - YOUNG KWAK
Young Kwak
Michael Korpi, Jr. plays his violin to a crowd of busy shoppers.

The masses of River Park Square soften when Michael Korpi, Jr., strikes the opening notes of “Apologize.” Some slow down. Others stop to watch. From his nimble fingers, through the instrument and out the amplifier, Korpi, 25, weaves each note into the next. Song fills the glass and steel canyon of downtown and consume the ears of those passing by.

It’s high culture. It’s performance art. It’s street music, via violin.

“It just feels really free out on the street, and there’s this notion that people are enjoying themselves,” Korpi says later, after a light rain chased him indoors. “Rather than people coming to a concert hall and paying for a ticket and expecting perfection.”

He taps an effects pedal on the sidewalk in front of him, a little red box that throws his violin notes on repeat. As the melody loops, Korpi hammers a percussive rhythm on his strings. The solo act, suddenly, has become an ensemble.

It’s a trick he learned from Bryson Andres, a street performer and classical violinist who recently passed through town. Andres’ time in Spokane inspired Korpi to begin his outdoor performances. But they began five years ago in Leavenworth. While in town visiting for a weekend, Korpi stood outside — no pedal, no amplifier, just him and the violin — and recited Bach.

“Someone recognized it and sat through the whole thing, and clearly really was moved and enjoyed it,” he says.

“The most valuable part of it is making that connection with an audience,” he adds. “It’s almost face-to-face, and that’s what I like about it.”

His setlist has since been tweaked.

“I still play my Bach and what most people would call classical music, but I mix in the popular tunes you hear on the radio,” he says.

Today there’s “Apologize” by One Republic, “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay and “Without You” by David Guetta and Usher.

“This is great, this is pure, it makes me want to cry, it touches the soul,” says 25-year-old Nika Jones, a Chico’s employee who stands outside waiting for her ride.

As Korpi finishes, Jones asks the name of the song.

“Apologize,” he calls out.

“That was good,” she says. “I mean, they’re all good, but . . .”

“I know what you mean,” he says.

Nearby stands a group of stylish Japanese guys. They wear slim pants, scarves and teased hair. They smoke cigarettes and drink from soda cups. They pluck dollars from their billfolds to toss into Korpi’s open violin case.

The money quickly mounts.

Some people give a dollar. Some give two. Some hover beside the musician and fumble with wallets or handbags. Some clutch bills as they cross Main Avenue. Korpi has lured them from across the street. They’ve prepared.

Since he’s begun performing, Korpi says the tips amount to an honest living, but not a motive for playing.

“It is a livelihood, I support myself, but that’s not the underlying reason,” he says. “People seem to enjoy it, and I enjoy it, and it’s good practice.”

Still, he made $85 in a half-hour playing downtown one Saturday night.

Korpi pauses between songs just long enough to blow into his hands. It’s 44 degrees. He wouldn’t use a quality violin out here because the temperature flux would warp its hollow body. So he has his street violin: “It’s a cigar box. It has awful sound.”

Korpi, who says he’s been playing all his life, will graduate from Whitworth in May with a degree in violin performance. Afterward that, he intends to explore his new vocation.

“I think I’m going to do some traveling,” he says. “Travel around the country and perform on sidewalks. I’m from Seattle, I might start there and probably go south.”

“I don’t plan to be doing it my whole life,” he adds. “Maybe grad school in a few years.”

By the second song, the foot traffic has transformed into a mini-crowd. Men and women stand around Korpi, shooting photos and video from their cellphones. Behind him, a line of watchers forms along the pillars and doors in front of the mall.

The panoramic audience doesn’t stir anxiety.

“I don’t get nervous out in the street,” Korpi says. “In a recital hall, the whole performance, I’ll be trying to keep my leg from shaking. If I got the first hint that someone wasn’t enjoying [the street music], I’d go back in the practice room and stick to the recital halls.”

Mariana Abresch enjoys it. A 30-year-old Seattleite in town for the day, she drops a dollar into Korpi’s case as she strolls into the mall.

“He sounded like he was in a movie soundtrack,” she says, heading for the escalators.

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