Joshua Bell in the Subway

I watched Joshua Bell play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto last night on PBS Live at Lincoln Center.  It’s the Mostly Mozart Festival in NYC.

This is one of my favorite pieces of classical music.  The melodious theme comes right out in the opening bars, not needing any intro from the orchestra as in conventional concertos.  I like it that way, swift, cut to the chase.  And here’s the sign of greatness:  the audacity to break new grounds.  Last night I saw the violinist’s audacity matching that of Mendelssohn’s: Bell re-wrote the cadenza for himself.  He has not only given an engaging performance, but has left his watermark in the piece as well.

If you want to see what a born winner is like, just briefly look at his bio.  At 10, he was a tennis champion.  Four years later, he made his professional debut as a violinist and became the youngest person to play with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  And the rest is history.

Bell has recorded more than 30 CD’s, won 4 Grammys, indirectly an Oscar as he performed the winning soundtrack for Best Original Score in ‘The Red Violin’, and garnered accolades too numerous to mention.  His achievements culminated in the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize in 2007, the highest honor for a musician in America.  That puts him in rank with previous prize winners Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, and Andre Watts.  But beyond his musical career, he continues with sports and pursues other pastimes.  How about a video games world championship for versatility? Yup, he got that too, in 1996.

Well ok, so far so good… until he was asked by Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten to busk in a Washington DC subway station during morning rush hour.  At 7:51 am on January 12, 2007, a few months before he won the Avery Fisher Prize, Joshua Bell stood in a DC subway station in jeans and a long-sleeve T.  He opened up his case, and started playing his 1713 Stradivarius.

That was probably the first time he had been ignored or even given the cold shoulder:

He got $32.17 for his 43 minutes playing, not counting the woman who recognized him and gave him a twenty.  And yes, there were a few pennies in his case.  More than a thousand people passed by.  In the hustle and bustle of morning rush, few had even stopped to look at him, despite hearing the music.

The commuters were oblivious to the treat that would have cost them a hefty $100 in a concert hall, if they could find a ticket that is.  And for Weingarten,  he got a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for his Washington Post cover story ‘Pearls Before Breakfast’.  To read this fascinating article, CLICK HERE.

Meant to be a philosophical musing on ‘Art and Contexts’, the experiment aims at exploring the epistemology of beauty.  Will we know what beauty is once it’s taken out of context?  Are there preconditions for us to appreciate the arts?  Do we have to recognize a musician before we can admire the music he plays?  If art is taken out of its frame, is it still art?

But… maybe it’s more a sociological study of urban life, or one of economics.  Even if people recognize beauty, is it worthwhile to stop and sacrifice a few precious minutes?   Weighing the economic cost of being late for work, and the enjoyment of music, the bottom line is quite obvious.  What place does beauty have in the pragmatics of our daily routines?  Where do music and the arts rank in life’s competing priorities?

Pearls before breakfast… What breakfast?  Gotta run…


The Savior: Book Review

The Savior is the debut novel written by Eugene Drucker, the founding member of the renowned Emerson String Quartet.   It is a fictional Holocaust story, but what it depicts is not far-fetched.  Based on his father Ernst Drucker’s experience as a violinist in Germany during the 1930’s, and mingled with his own performing episodes in hospital wards and infirmaries, Drucker has created a riveting and believable narrative. Most importantly, he has packed into the short 204 pages some questions that humanity has long found impossible to solve, the problem of human depravity and personal redemption.

In the book, the protagonist Gottfried Keller is a young German violinist during WWII. Due to a weak heart, he cannot serve his country in the front line, but he is drafted into the Nazi war machine by the SS for an experiment in a Holocaust death camp. Under the cultured yet ruthless Kommandant, Keller is to play four solo violin concerts to selective Jewish prisoners. The expressed purpose is to test whether music has the power to revive languishing souls.

As I read the summary on the book cover, the image of the movie Shawshank Redemption (1994) came to mind. When the character Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) sneaks into the prison control room and broadcasts Mozart’s Sull Aria from The Marriage of Figaro over loud speakers out to the prison grounds, the inmates are instantly mesmerized by the beauty of the duet, the music transporting them from their confinement to lofty realms.

But what readers are confronted with here in The Savior is a drastic contrast. When Keller plays the Bach sonata in G minor for the inmates, he witnesses the horror of despair. The melodies act like whips on their flesh, cruel reminders of the hopelessness they are in. The intricacies of the fugue evoke searing pain rather than the expected comfort and relief, driving them to eerie moans and groans, exasperated in unrestrained sobs and anguish.

The irony is apparent. The redemptive power of music is but a myth. The violinist, acting as a life-giver or at least a boost to waning souls, is but a pawn in a game of cruelty. As the story unfolds, the violinist, the savior himself, finds desperate need for self redemption. Memories of his past, the choice of security over love, come back as torrents pounding on his conscience.

In the discussion of St. Matthew Passion with the young prison guard Rudi, Keller struck the chord of betrayal and remorse. As pathetic as attempting to pull one’s weight off the ground, both Keller and Rudi find It impossible to redeem themselves. The part a person plays in the overall scheme of atrocity needs to be dealt with. Being a pawn in the game does not excuse one from responsibility, even though the issue is a complex one.

As an expert in musicology and a professional musician, the author is able to effectively weave the music of Paganini, Ysaÿe, Hindemith, and Bach into literary form, an expertise only a violinist like himself can provide. The book excels in these detailed renderings of musical and literary tapestry.

However, the mere 204 pages of succinct narrative could be expanded to better handle the complexity of the issues and characterization the book is dealing with. The unfolding of Keller’s love affair with his Jewish girlfriend Marietta could be told in more details to allow the poignancy to linger.

Overall, a captivating story and a springboard to further pondering.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

The Savior by Eugene Drucker, Simon and Schuster, 2007, 204 Pages.

 CLICK HERE TO VIEW A VIDEO of Eugene Drucker playing Bach’s “Chacone” from Partita No. 2 and his explanation of its role in the book The Savior.