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Monday, April 09, 2007

Stradivarius incognito: a passover story

The Washington Post Magazine has a wonderful article about a stunt they arranged where violin virtuoso Joshua Bell played, like a normal street performer, in a Washington DC subway station. Would people notice that something extraordinary is happening right under their noses?
A onetime child prodigy, at 39 Joshua Bell has arrived as an internationally acclaimed virtuoso. Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston's stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100. Two weeks later, at the Music Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda, he would play to a standing-room-only audience so respectful of his artistry that they stifled their coughs until the silence between movements. But on that Friday in January, Joshua Bell was just another mendicant, competing for the attention of busy people on their way to work.
...
In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

No, Mr. Slatkin, there was never a crowd, not even for a second.

It was all videotaped by a hidden camera. You can play the recording once or 15 times, and it never gets any easier to watch. Try speeding it up, and it becomes one of those herky-jerky World War I-era silent newsreels. The people scurry by in comical little hops and starts, cups of coffee in their hands, cellphones at their ears, ID tags slapping at their bellies, a grim danse macabre to indifference, inertia and the dingy, gray rush of modernity.
...
Mark Leithauser has held in his hands more great works of art than any king or pope or Medici ever did. A senior curator at the National Gallery, he oversees the framing of the paintings. Leithauser thinks he has some idea of what happened at that Metro station.

"Let's say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It's a $5 million painting. And it's one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: 'Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.'"

My rabbi has a passover sermon about Moses and the burning bush: when you consider it, a bush on fire in the desert is nothing special, and it would take extended attention--peculiar attention--to notice that the flames aren't consuming it.

I choose to believe that New York has more Moses than Washington. Let Bell play Union Square -- I'd bet he'd get ten times the crowd.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Tue Apr 10, 10:11:00 AM:
There is a great response to the Joshua Bell article by a NYC subway musician in her blog: www.SawLady.com/blog
She interprets the situation differently from the Washington Post reporters... I thought you might find it interesting.
 
Anonymous Katy on Fri Apr 13, 10:26:00 AM:
My viola teacher used to live in the same building as Mischa Amory, a well-known violist. She could hear him practicing through the duct system in the building, so sometimes she'd stand next to the duct and eavesdrop. We'd all get guilt trip-inducing reports at our lessons:

"Mischa Amory always checks against open strings!"

"Mischa Amory plays lots of scales!"

"Mischa Amory uses the metronome!"

Maybe someone should send a pack of viola teachers to go heckle people in the subway.