About three weeks ago, The Washington Post ran a remarkable story that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. In a brash, brilliant public experiment, the editors of the newspaper arranged for a violinist to play as a busker in the L’Enfant Plaza Station of the Washington Metro at morning rush hour on Friday, Jan. 12. But this wasn’t just any violinist. The person who played in the Metro that morning was Joshua Bell, an alumnus of Spoleto’s Chamber Music series and one of the most accomplished violinists in the world. The 38-year-old Grammy winner has played with almost all of the world’s major orchestras and conductors, and on April 10 Bell accepted the Avery Fisher Prize, given once every few years to classical instrumentalists for outstanding achievement — essentially recognizing him as the best classical musician in America.
That morning in the Metro, Bell played his own instrument, a $3.5 million Stradivarius, but he was otherwise nondescript — just another young jeans-and-baseball-cap-wearing busker working the morning commute.
“No one knew it,” Post reporter Gene Weingarten wrote, “but the fiddler … was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception, and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”
Beauty, it turned out, would not transcend except for a very, very few passers-by that day. For 43 minutes, Bell played some of the classical world’s most extraordinary music — not the best-known works in the canon but some of the most challenging and flamboyant. He commands $1,000 per minute or so in the concert hall, and tickets to his performances go for hundreds of dollars. His haul at the end of his short gig: $32.17. (Yes, some people gave pennies.)
Only a handful of that morning’s crowd could be bothered to pause for Bell’s performance on their way into the office, and just one person recognized him. At The Washington Post‘s website, videotapes of the performance show bundled-up commuters entering the Metro arcade just feet from Bell and walking by the youthful virtuoso on their way to work without so much as a passing glance. The acoustics in the room were surprisingly good; on the videotapes, it’s easy to hear the sublime sounds he coaxed from his instrument. But the blinkered masses mostly moved past without a thought, like cattle being ushered to their doom, completely caught up in the mundanity of their lives, oblivious to one of humanity’s most transcendent achievements just feet away.
A couple of the Post‘s videos have sped-up segments, so you can get an idea of just how oblivious the bulk of the people were to what was happening in front of them. It calls to mind Godfrey Reggio’s timeless 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, with its famous score by composer Philip Glass — another Spoleto alum, who’ll be here in a month premiering his new music theatre work Book of Longing.
I can’t stop wondering about the Post‘s experiment. What does it say about those commuters — and by extension all Americans? How big would the ensuing riot have been had the performer been K-Fed or Ashlee Simpson or any of 100 other “celebrity” hacks?
But mostly I wonder what I would have done.
“If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that,” Weingarten wrote, “then what else are we missing?”
I would have stopped. God, I hope I would have stopped.