April 17, 2007

We Suck

First heard of Joshua Bell on the NPR All Songs Considered podcast, which usually features song excerpts from indie musicians and never features classical music. But in this case they were so impressed by The Voice Of The Violin they made room for an entire sonata from the CD after wrestling with Sony for the podcast rights. Not that one can really appreciate a good violin performance in over-compressed MP3 form, but at least the name stuck. So I was drawn to the Washington Post Magazine article which featured Mr. Bell.

By all accounts Mr. Bell's suppose to be a nice guy, and he was a good enough sport to go along with Wash Post's stunt to go into a busy DC Metro station during the morning rush-hour to play for an hour incognito. This isn't your typical morning busker, but an internationally recognized musical genius with classical chops and crossover appeal, playing masterpiece repertoire on a Stradivarius violin in perfect tone.

He emerged from the Metro at the L'Enfant Plaza station and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L'Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What's the moral mathematics of the moment?

So would the bourgeois bureaucrats be struck by the beauty of the moment? What did they say about never underestimating the stupidity of the American public?

With "Chaconne," the opening is filled with a building sense of awe. That kept him busy for a while. Eventually, though, he began to steal a sidelong glance.

"It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . ."

The word doesn't come easily.

"...ignoring me."

Bell is laughing. It's at himself.

"At a music hall, I'll get upset if someone coughs or if someone's cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change."

Only a handful of people even took a second glance. One person recognized the music as special and stopped to listen, and one person recognized the famous face.

Total haul for the hour: $32.17
("Yes, some people gave pennies.")

I can go on and rail about the ignorant Philistines, but to be honest if I were there I'd have the iPod on, the headphones in, and walked right on by, too. Although I'm now slightly motivated to go find a good recording of the Bach violin partitas. I'd like to think I know what I like and can recognize good music when I hear it, but I'm most likely just as easily prejudiced as anyone else by popularity and the name in the lighted marquee. Not unlike wine when we pay the big bucks for the grand cru Bordeauxs because frankly we don't know any better.

At least it's comforting to know that somebody is being taught to appreciate classical music, even if it's Asian-style cram-school appreciation in China.

Posted by mikewang on 04:34 PM