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Upper West Side musician talks shop

Upper West Side Gregory Singer talks with his hands, which is perhaps unsurprising given his profession. As a conductor, composer, and classically trained violinist, Singer heads up the Manhattan Symphonie, a little-known orchestra he started that holds mostly benefit concerts for different causes around the city and around the world.

Singer has lived on the Upper West Side since 1972, and has seen the neighborhood transform from a gritty, sometimes dangerous, always exciting hodge-podge of artists, musicians and drug dealers, to a safe shadow of the culturally rich middle-class enclave it once was.

"A lot of my artist and musician friends have had to move out of the neighborhood because the rents have gotten so high," said Singer. "We joke about the fact that every block on the Upper West Side seems to have a Duane Reade, or a bank, or a Starbucks. The nature of the neighborhood has kind of died. It's very sad."

These days Singer tends to his shop at West 80th Street and Broadway, "Gregory Singer's Fine Violins," and plays piano with his mother every Friday at the Atria West 86, a senior living home on the Upper West Side. His mother has dementia, but that doesn't stop her from hitting every note on accompaniment, he said.

On the walls of his shop are photos of his father, a conductor named Jacques Singer, with famous conductors from Europe. There's one of Singer as a child with comedian Jack Benny. The shop itself is cozy, with a worn antique sofa and heavy red velvet drapes. Records are stacked in one corner, cellos and violins hang in cases from the walls, and a Steinway dominates a full third of the room. Antique model boats and paintings in heavy wooden frames round out the space, and Singer has a story for each piece of dusty memorabilia that's found its way into his realm.

Singer has a penchant for talking about a piece of music, then running across the room to play it on the Steinway or snatching a violin off the wall to demonstrate the passage in question. One day at his shop, he donned a replica Civil War uniform and played an Irish jig before showing off a sketch he did of the hallway ? plants, window, and a chair ? outside his shop.

That same day, a member of the New York Philharmonic stopped by to sell his cello on consignment with Singer. "Greg doesn't have to do this stuff, he does it because he loves it," said the cellist. Singer said his reputation as an instrument dealer is reinforced by the fact that he's also a musician, and that deals can be made with little more than a handshake because musicians know he won't rip them off selling their instruments for them.

Asked if business is good, Singer jokingly told the cellist the check wouldn't bounce. But the joke belies a larger problem he's facing; little money is made off of the shop, and there's a dwindling number of venues to showcase his work. His Manhattan Symphonie has played Carnegie Hall three times, and has travelled to the Philippines to raise money for those who were devastated by last year's Typhoon Haiyan, and to Japan to raise funds for the victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. Every year he puts on a free 9/11 memorial concert.

His orchestra has been commissioned to play three times in China, where Singer likes to mix it up with a bombastic version of the Chinese national anthem, and take his bluegrass fiddling ? he's originally from Texas - into the audience to liven the performance up. Singer's approach to music is that performing and listening should be fun, it should be an experience for everyone involved. "They went wild, they were cheering like they were at a rock concert," said Singer of the Chinese audience. "There are no western composers that dance, and jump into the audience." Singer said he'd like to find a concert hall or church where he could play his music, or a radio show, or tour the United States, "exporting America to itself," helping young people discover new and interesting music from the melting pot that is New York. For now though, he'll tend to his shop and wait for opportunity to come knocking.

"It's a comedy of errors," said Singer, of running his business. He frequently loans out or sells instruments at a steep discount or, in one or two cases, completely free. The commission he receives on many of his consignment sales is negligible, he said.

"This place is a conduit," said Singer of his shop, where he occasionally holds impromptu performances with other musicians. "I introduce people. I don't do good deeds to gain notoriety, I gave up on that several years ago."

Despite all the time that's passed, the friends that have moved and the changes he's witnessed, right now Singer couldn't imagine living anywhere else.

"I've stayed primarily because I love New York City. It's a multi-national, multi-racial, multi-religious community where you can just blend in with the crowd. There's all kinds of interesting people still coming here to New York. I've been all over the world, to Italy and Russia and China and other countries, but I find New York is just really home, I just love the feel of the city, the way it's put together."

That said, he does miss the way things used to be, the sense of community and the artistic scene that once flourished on the Upper West Side. Looking around sometimes at the increasing homogenization of his neighborhood, Singer said, "It's the one thing that would drive me out of the city."

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