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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    If a virtuoso plays in a subway station and no one cares to hear…

    Matt Stonecolumnist
    Matt Stone

    When Joshua Bell came to Centennial Hall two weeks ago, he played to a sold-out house. The audience watched with bated breath as the world’s preeminent violinist turned over complex Vivaldi melodies with the subtle deftness of a musical wunderkind. Not a seat to be found. Nada. How appropriate for one of the greatest talents alive today.

    His playing, as Interview magazine once noted, “”does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.”” He’s good. He’s downright brilliant. That’s why, when The Washington Post magazine decided to place the 39-year-old violinist outside his “”element”” – at the top of an escalator, beside a trash can in Washington, D.C.’s L’Enfant Plaza subway station – something absurd was bound to happen.

    Of course, the audacity of the stunt itself is an exercise in the absurd. Bell has played before monarchs, presidents and prime ministers. In New York, the “”cheap”” seats at his concerts run for about $100; the primo seats – well, you know …

    His violin, a Stradivarius crafted in 1713, allegedly cost him some $3.5 million – the exact same violin Bell used for this morning rush-hour shenanigan on Jan. 12 in one of Washington, D.C.’s busiest subway stations.

    The Washington Post magazine, it seems, has a sense of humor. The test, as it were, was to see how many people during their morning rush hour would notice the world’s greatest violinist peppering the hustle and bustle with the staccato of Bach or Massenet, stop, listen, perhaps even donate a spare dollar or two to a man playing on a $3.5 million violin.

    The results are as intriguing as they are appalling. The Post magazine article chronicles a handful of passers-by: some were completely oblivious to the art wafting from a 300-year-old violin four feet away; some found the music energizing even though they admitted to knowing nothing about classical music.

    And curiously, there is this scrap of beauty: “”There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch.””

    As poet Billy Collins reminds us, we forget the iambic cadence of our mother’s heart; it’s bludgeoned out by the hubbub of modern life.

    And this scrap of depression: “”And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.””

    The kids apparently understood what Joshua Bell was doing there, even if they didn’t know who he was or how expensive his violin is. The extraneous details of money, time and fame were inconsequential to the children.

    However, the music was not. The music was timeless, priceless – in the same way that art can be abstracted from a particular time and place, from the museum wall, from the concert hall, and damnit, it’s still art.

    Kids know that. We adults, we forget too easily. As poet Billy Collins reminds us, we forget the iambic cadence of our mother’s heart; it’s bludgeoned out by the hubbub of modern life.

    Let’s reflect back for a moment on the Interview magazine quote, the one about Bell’s playing as telling “”human beings why they bother to live.”” Over a 43-minute span, 1,097 people passed by, moving rapidly from subway to job, to sit in cubicles for eight hours and make a decent dollar.

    For his part, Bell collected $52.17, 20 of which came from one woman who recognized the violinist. So Bell, in a sense, collected only $32.17. And as the Post article aptly points out, “”some people gave pennies.””

    Indeed, only one person ever surmised that before her was the exceptional Joshua Bell playing Schubert in an unexceptional subway station. Just down the corridor, the line for the lottery machine never numbered less than four eager souls, shuffling forward to drop another dollar for another five insignificant numbers.

    And six songs later, not one drew thunderous applause as each does in the great concert halls of the world. Only seven people ever stopped to listen.

    Seven. Out of 1,097.

    The kids stopped, though. Or at least, the kids wanted to stop. So maybe there’s hope yet for this maddening world of ours.

    Matt Stone is a senior majoring in music appreciation. He can be reached at

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