Warehouse G

Great Subway Music

Missing Beauty As We Rush Idly By

By James Donahue

Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten won a Pulitzer Prize for a story he generated in 2007 after he tested the public’s response to a great performance by world renounced violinist Joshua Bell, playing in an un-announced and unlikely public place.

Weingarten asked the question: “Would people distinguish between a world-class instrumental virtuoso and an ordinary street musician if the only difference between them were the setting?

To find the answer, Weingarten and the Washington Post enlisted Bell to offer a free, 45-minute incognito performance to morning commuters passing through the L’Enfant Plaza Station of the subway line in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 12, 2007.

Weingarten described the event as “an experiment in context, perception and priorities – as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste; in a banal setting at an inconvenient time.” He wondered if beauty could transcend?”

Bell stood at the door performing six classical pieces on his handcrafted 1713 Stradivarius violin, one of the finest and most costly instruments in the world, the empty violin case at his feet, as thousands of people rushed through the room. The newspaper video-taped the event, and the video can be found on U-Tube.

During the performance, most of the people rushed past giving little, if any notice that there was live music being offered. One man slowed and stopped for a few seconds to listen, but then rushed off to meet his schedule. As they passed, a few people tossed money in a till set up near the violin case.

The children seemed most responsive. Some wanted to stop but were pulled on by the hand of their busy parents.

It wasn’t until one woman stopped in front of Bell and stood there, staring intently at him and obviously appreciating his music, that other people began to stop and listen. Some leaned up against a nearby wall. Others paused for a little while before continuing on. But this single woman remained at her post until Bell finished his last piece and put his violin in its case.

Before he left the video shows the woman approaching Bell. It was obvious that she recognized him. You can hear her telling Bell that she had attended one of his concerts and was surprised to see him playing in that subway station.

This could only happen in D.C.,” she remarked.

Two days before he gave his free performance to an almost unappreciative crowd in that subway, Bell performed before a sold-out crowd at a Boston theater where the price of the seats averaged $100.

Among the conclusions reached by the experiment were that people only recognize great performances by great artists if they occur in a particular setting. The other thought is that if we are too busy to stop and smell the roses, or in this case listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written on one of the finest instruments ever made, what else are we missing in our rush through life?