Musical encounters: the flash mob kind

A long time ago I was unexpectedly serenaded by a professional opera singer on the street in Covent Garden, London. I described that in a separate article, devoted to my most powerful musical experiences, so I won’t repeat myself here. It was a precursor to what I will talk about today.

A second similar encounter occurred in Dresden, East Germany. I was at a big gala dinner and sitting at a table of six, and just after the main course, when dessert was being served, one of the guests at our table stood up. I had spoken to him, and he seemed like an affable, intelligent person. But now, standing there, and without any reason or encouragement, he started to sing. It was deeply inappropriate. Was he inebriated? He had been drinking the same red wine I had, and done it in moderation. That could not be it.

People from other tables were turning around and staring in disbelief. It’s not the kind of thing you do at a formal dinner. For me it was particularly embarrassing: he was from my table. The only thing that mitigated the situation was his voice, which was quite powerful. And the piece he was singing, which was clearly operatic.

Suddenly a guest from another table stood up and took a few steps towards the singer. Would he talk to him, calm him down? No, he started singing himself, with an equally trained and powerful voice, in contrapuntal harmony with the first man. Then a lady at a different table stood up and joined in, with a full operatic soprano. And then another, and another, until the entire hall resonated with their performance. And left us, the uninitiated guests, stunned and delighted.

Of course I spoke with the first singer when he sat down and resumed dinner. They were opera singers who had been invited by our inventive host (the head of a chip manufacturing company) to perform at the dinner. Did they do this professionally, moonlighting as surprise singers at festive occasions? No, apparently this was the first time they had tried it.

Unfortunately I did not take a single picture of the Dresden dinner performance — I was too stunned — and video cameras were not a tool you carried around with you at the time. But it left a lasting impression. I often considered organising something on the same lines in my home town of Hamburg, and I told all my friends about it. Then: YouTube was launched and I discovered that people were doing it in different parts of the world. It was an established prank and had a name: the musical flash mob.

First a warning: if you start searching for “flash mob” in YouTube you are going to spend hours watching the just a few of the hundreds of video posted there. Some are very amateurish, recorded on shaky smartphones; but some are professionally filmed, clearly by members of the pranking group. Many are based on voice, like our pioneer event in Dresden; but there are also instrumental flashmobs. For starts here is one of the most famous, arranged by the Banco Sabadell in Spain, with the participation of around 100 members of the Vallès Symphony Orchestra and other musical groups. Maximize the video, sit back and watch the whole thing develop. And simply enjoy — like 78 million viewers have done before you.

The above examples are not the purest form of the flash mobbing. At some stage a conductor appears and guides the performers, and you know this has been carefully staged. I love flash mobs that simply dumbfound the audience. Here are some of my favourite examples:

Well, if you have enjoyed the above examples you can look for more. I repeat my warning: there are many hundreds in YouTube, and you can spend many hours watching them. Here are a few relevant searches:

I myself still prefer the informal ones, where the people are baffled and delighted. Like this final example from a restaurant in Bologna, which reminds me of my first encounter in Dresden.

Other musical articles

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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