It's just after noon on a gorgeous late summer Friday at Pioneer Courthouse Square, and one of the best and most versatile violinists on the West Coast is getting ready to do some busking. Dressed in jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, Greg Ewer unfolds his battered, yellowish violin case, puts out a tip jar, and launches into some Bach sonatas. He snags $3 in the first five minutes. This is going to be easy.
Not that easy, it turns out. He's quickly busted by a polite Portland cop and another city worker who explain it's illegal to busk in Pioneer Courthouse Square. They wish him luck, then give him the boot.
Already, the afternoon has been more eventful than world-famous violinist Joshua Bell's morning busking in the nation's capital in 2007, the subject of a Washington Post story. Actually, a skilled classical musician playing for his supper on a street corner isn't actually unheard of. Ewer has played corners before, while traveling in Europe and even on Portland's Northwest 23rd Avenue, when he needed rent money.
Ewer is more comfortable now. The transplanted Texan is the only member of both of the state's premier orchestras: the Oregon Symphony and Portland Baroque Orchestra. He also performs with Pink Martini and Third Angle New Music ensemble, teaches at Lewis & Clark and Reed colleges, and leads 45th Parallel, a chamber-music series that features some of the best Northwest classical musicians.
Walking away from Pioneer Square, his old instincts kick in. "Oh, sandwich stand," he says, eyeing a line of people in front of a kiosk on the Southwest 6th Avenue bus mall. "This could be a good spot."
Despite Ewer's incontrovertible skill, evident from his gorgeous performance of the famous Chaconne from a J.S. Bach solo partita, people stroll or sprint by, many rendered impervious to the music by headphones, cellphones and conversations. With the violin's sound disappearing half a block away amid the rumble of cars and the MAX, even the undistracted have only a few seconds to perceive the quality of Ewer's playing.
At 1 pm, Ewer scrambles to claim a less noisy yet more heavily trafficked spot directly across from Pioneer Courthouse Square, resuming the Bach partita.
Over the next half-hour, most passersby don't spare Ewer a second glance, though several stop to watch for a few minutes. Ewer switches from Bach to a flashy Pablo de Sarasate riff. As he plays, Erwin Avendano, the proprietor of a nearby jewelry cart, explains there are two types of street musicians, "good ones and shitty ones." He likes Ewer. "That guy," he says as a smile spreads across his face, "he's really good."
We head for Fox Tower, where Ewer sets up next to a line of people waiting for movie tickets and plays the Bach Chaconne. At one point, four people converge to drop a buck in his case, and one applauds as he finishes Fritz Kreisler's Praeludium and Allegro with a flourish.
Later, a dreadlocked young man who's trading jokes for spare change walks up to Ewer and stares intently at his fingers for several minutes, nodding appreciatively. A bearded man on a bike carrying bottles and cans searches through his pockets for some coins and shyly drops them in the case. A woman watches for a while. Puzzled, she drops in some bills. "You're so good!" she exclaims. "Why are you doing this?"
By about 2:30, Ewer packs up his violin, rubs his bow arm, and calls it a day. Not counting travel breaks, he's played a bit less than two hours and made $22.42.
It's not quite as much as Joshua Bell made busking in a Washington subway station, yet Ewer is encouraged. In a recession-wracked city, when few people pay for music anymore, a couple dozen people—none prosperous looking, only one an avowed classical music fan—recognized the quality of Ewer's playing, and found it worth paying for.
"It's situational," Ewer concludes later. "People who are waiting in line for movie tickets aren't rushing off to work in the morning. It's the middle of the day and the sun is shining and they're open to being moved by the music."
He notes that when he played an Irish fiddle tune or bluegrass number, no one stopped. It's the classical pieces that draw attention—and contributions.
"Maybe classical is the novelty on the street," he says. "In classical music, we worry all the time—is the art dying? But if so many people randomly stop and enjoy it, if it's got universal appeal, how could it possibly be dying? The level of acceptance I felt is very gratifying for me. It gives me more hope."
Ewer strolls past another busker playing a guitar. He pauses.
âJust a second,â he says, leaning over to drop a dollar in the open guitar case.