Sean Bennett is glad that it’s getting to be summer – it’s a much better time of year to be a street musician. People are outdoors more often, they’re less rushed and more willing to listen, and it opens the door to better money and more opportunities for he and his best friend Franco Yugga.
You may have seen the two classically-trained violinists performing in Suburban Station on your commute to and from work; their playing reverberates beautifully across the cement walls by the 17th Street staircase. It wasn’t too far from there yesterday afternoon that Bennett, 19, and Yugga, 18, were performing their rendition of Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 when renowned Dublin singer-songwriter Glen Hansard happened to be within earshot.
Hansard was in town for his performance at WXPN’s NonCOMM convention last night. It was his first show in several months, he was anxious to test out new songs, and as his manager Howard Greynolds strolled with him around Rittenhouse Row, they noticed the two guys with instrument cases at 17th and Walnut.
“Howard was like ‘dude, there’s your string section for tonight if you need one,'” says Hansard, chatting backstage after the performance. “So I was like ‘shit, man, let’s hang around and see if they’re any good!’ So we waited till the piece was over – the lads were making a beautiful sound.”
He laughs recalling Bennett and Yugga’s surprised reaction when they offered the gig. They immediately asked if they’d get paid, says Hansard – obviously admiring their tenacity – and negotiated a price. Once the business end of things was set, the group made plans to meet up later at World Cafe Live.
They joined Hansard onstage for the final two songs of his performance, to the delight of the enthusiastically cheering crowd (listen to the set here). Bennett says it was definitely different from the sorts of gigs they’re used to. “We’ve never played for such a loose crowd before,” he says. “Usually we play with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, so it’s a lot of people sitting down and being very quiet. This is kind of awesome though.”
Bennett graduated from CAPA – the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts – last year, while Yugga went to GAMP – Girard Academic and Music Prep. They met through their involvement in the string orchestra at Musicopia, a local music education nonprofit. “We started playing outside together and it just clicked,” says Yugga.
They’ve been busking together and individually since they were 12; in addition to Suburban and the streets near Rittenhouse, they also frequent South Street and City Hall, where they’ve become very recognizable fixtures. Bennett told the Inquirer last year that he’s had Philadelphia notables like Questlove and Jill Scott catch him performing.
Yugga has been a violinist since he was 7 years old; Bennett got his first violin when he was 10, and in 2012, he won the All City Philadelphia Concerto Competition. Last year, he and Yugga received a grant from the Philadelphia Cultural Fund. They plan to attend college for music, but decided to take a year off after graduation. “We didn’t feel like we were ready for our audition, so we’re taking a gap year,” says Bennett. “We’re going to audition next year.”
Both admit that busking isn’t an easy job. How well you do depends on the time of year, and while many Philadelphians at NonCOMM last night recognized them from their gig at Suburban Station, the train concourses are actually their least favorite place to play. “People just walk by us, they’re just trying to get to the train,” says Bennett.
“They don’t even mind us,” Yugga adds. “It’s like we don’t exist.”
In summers, they take day trips to New York; Bennett tells us that’s where the big bucks are. Their repertoire is entirely classical; the Mozart symphony Hansard heard is one of their more successful arrangements. “That’s one of the moneymakers,” Bennett says.
As they told their story, Hansard nodded knowingly. He famously got his start in music as a busker on the streets of Dublin. And though he says connecting with buskers on tour isn’t something he consciously sets out to do, when you encounter a really good street musician, it stands out.
“There’s different kinds of buskers,” Hansard says. “There’s buskers who busk just for money, and there’s buskers who busk because there’s something in the air they’re trying to grab. Its almost like some sort of opportunity, something that will bring them to another place. There’s a sense of adventure in it, not just ‘oh, I’m working here for the next two hours.'”
Hansard says he definitely sees that sense of adventure in Bennett and Yugga.
“When I asked you to play, you were like ‘sure!'” he continues. “You get a lot of workaday buskers, and they’re great too, but I much prefer the ones who are willing to follow the day wherever it leads them.”
Franco Yugga, Glen Hansard, NonCOMM 2015, Sean Bennett