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Musicians, T singing two-part harmony

Few complaints about new rules on performing

Classical guitarist John Clarke says he has been asked for his new subway performer's permit about once every 20 times he performs by the tracks, since the MBTA rules regulating musicians in subway stations took effect last December.

Clarke, 27, of South Boston, said he hasn't had any problems with MBTA officials, but some locations of the new performance areas don't make any sense to him. The new rules, which require T musicians to obtain and carry a $25 annual permit, started Dec. 8, 2003, after the MBTA and musicians fought over a proposed ban of amplified instruments and horns from all T stations. Musicians can now perform only in designated areas and below an 80-decibel level; drums and trumpets are not allowed.

"The MBTA inspection and enforcement is lax, because they do not have enough inspectors," said Clarke. "At some stations, musicians would never play where [the MBTA] placed it. The places I play right now are placed where musicians would play anyhow. Musicians are good at staying out of traffic."

He said that he generally plays at subway hot spots Harvard Square, Park Street, and Downtown Crossing stations. He said that he usually attracts a crowd with his own piece, "Opus No. 2."

MBTA press secretary Joe Pesaturo said the MBTA is happy with the performers. He explained that since the implementation of the new policy, the MBTA has issued about 200 permits and revoked only one. That was in late spring, he said, when a harmonica player was smoking and drinking from a can of beer on the Orange Line platform in Back Bay station. When subway personnel asked the musician to get rid of the beer and cigarette, the performer refused.

"The relationship between the MBTA and subway performers has never been better," said Pesaturo. "There has been a great deal of cooperation, and the performers have been following the rules and regulations."

Most T riders -- like Allison Gonta, 27, of Boston -- said they really liked the musicians playing in the stations. Gonta, who often travels on the Red Line from Park Street Station, said she really likes a performer who plays an acoustic guitar.

"It gives you something sweet for the day," said Gonta.

One stop down, at Government Center on the Green Line, Roberto Cabral, 19, of Chelsea, said he thinks the musicians are entertaining, as long as they're not bothering anyone or playing bad music. Asked if he's ever heard any bad music, he said no.

"I am open to all different kinds of music," said Cabral. "If I don't like it, I can listen to my headphones and my own music."

Musicians are also content under the new rules. Stephen Baird, 56, director of the nonprofit Community Arts Advocates Inc. in Jamaica Plain, a musician who led the fight against the proposed rules, said he has received only a few complaints in the last 10 months, and they were location issues.

"Ninety-nine percent of the musicians are happy, and the MBTA personnel are treating them well," said Baird. "It's one of the nicest systems for people to play in anywhere in the world. They are treated with the most respect. [Former] governor [Michael S.] Dukakis started 'Music Under Boston,' and it's been part of our culture for 25 to 30 years. That means the T has been pretty cooperative, but it still depends on the initiative and perseverance of the musicians."

Dukakis started Music Under Boston during his first gubernatorial administration. Part of the program included local musicians -- including members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra -- playing in subway stations.

Some musicians, Baird said, have complained about the location of the Park Street Red Line performance area at the second stairway; performers, he explained, prefer to play at the first stairway on the center platform, coming from the inbound Green Line station. Other complaints have been about performance areas at South Station on the Red Line and the inbound Downtown Crossing Orange Line performance area, where the sign designating the performance area at the second bench is missing.

Baird is also one of the key protagonists in the fight above ground for Boston street musicians. With Community Arts Advocates, he filed a complaint in July against the City of Boston, the Boston Police Department, and the Boston Parks and Recreation Department for not allowing street performers to play and collect donations in Boston parks and streets. He said he wants to show that the current laws -- Boston Municipal Order 16-22.4 and Boston Police Rule 75 -- are unconstitutional and propose a new ordinance allowing street performers to collect donations.

The other defendants named in the complaint are Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen M. O'Toole and Parks and Recreation Department Commissioner Antonia Pollack, both in their professional capacity.

Representing Baird, John Cotter, lead counsel and partner at Testa, Hurwitz and Thibeault, LLP, in Boston, said the City of Boston denied the claims, and the other defendants seek to be dismissed from the case. He said that he expects litigation and discovery to begin in the upcoming weeks.

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