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…