ICYMI: Joshua Bell returns to the subway next week

Photo by Chris Lee via the Joshua Bell official website.

Photo by Chris Lee via the Joshua Bell official website.

Hey, did you hear about the Grammy-winning classical violinist who played for 45 minutes in an entranceway to the Washington, D.C. subway…and almost no one noticed?

It’s not very often that we here at Razorgator write about classical music or musicians; but when it involves one of the great instrumentalists of our time, and a sequel of sorts to a Pulitzer Prize-winning story, we tend to sit up and take notice.

In 2007, Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten proposed what might be called a social experiment: “(W)hether, in an incongruous context, ordinary people would recognize genius.” He ran the idea past Joshua Bell, widely recognized as one of the great violin virtuosos of the modern era; to Weingarten’s surprise, Bell accepted, and thus it was on a January morning, inside the entrance to the L’Enfant Plaza station of Washington’s Metro, that Bell set up shop, so to speak, and played his Stradivarius for roughly 45 minutes as an anonymous street musician.

In that time period, over 1,000 people passed by Bell, who performed works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Schubert, Manuel Ponce, and others – but only 27 people actually stopped to listen for any extended period of time, and only one of those passersby recognized Bell as the violinist – and that was only because she had seen him just days before at a scheduled free concert at the Library of Congress. (For the record, he earned roughly $32 for his time, given by those who tossed money into his open violin case.)

The results of Weingarten and Bell’s social-experiment collaboration culminated in a piece entitled “Pearls Before Breakfast,” which ran in the Post’s Magazine on a Sunday in early April of 2007; it would become a viral hit, blogged, reblogged, and e-mailed around the world over and over, and resulted in the first of Weingarten’s two Pulitzers for Feature Writing (his second, in 2009, was on a decidedly darker topic). In the intervening years, it’s also become the thing which Bell is most recognized for – not his concertizing, nor his burgeoning catalog of recordings for multiple labels, not even taking up the conductor’s baton as music director of Britain’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra.

Fast forward to now, and Bell is returning to the Metro, as Post writer Jessica Contrera wrote, “on his own terms.” He’ll play for free in public in the main hall of D.C.’s Union Station on September 30, at 12:30 p.m., accompanied by a number of students from the National YoungArts Foundation, and in conjunction with the drop of a new recording and a television special on HBO.

As Bell said to Contrera in the article accompanying the announcement, “I’m in dangerous territory of (the L’Enfant Plaza performance) becoming the main thing I’m known for in my life. I really don’t want that on my tombstone: Here he is, underground again.” Consequently, the performance will be equal parts in support of increased funding for music education in schools; and a “do-over” not just for him, but for all those people who have told him “I wish I would have been there!” His publicist is calling it an “In Case You Missed It” concert – or ICYMI, in Twitter-ese.

Over the years, he’s performed for heads of state, celebrities, and thousands of paying customers (myself included, twice; he was accompanied by the Indianapolis Symphony on both occasions); speaking of which, he’ll be coming to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles next month, among other places. But next week, he will take violin in hand once more, in the subway system of Washington, and craft an epilogue to the biggest story of his illustrious career – or so he hopes.

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