Thursday, April 24, 2008

Joshua Bell and an Experiment at Rush Hour in D.C.

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L'Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What's the moral mathematics of the moment?

On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post 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, would beauty transcend?

What do you think happened? What would you have done?
Find the article in full with videos of the event and a link to the audio of the entire concert here.

I read about this a year ago and was so intrigued but failed to blog it. I wonder how I would have reacted had I been there. Firstly, I never have to be anywhere at 7:51 am and if need be I would most likely be running late. No doubt, I would have zoomed right past Mr. Bell with a glance over my shoulder longing to linger. I so love the violin. However, if it were to have taken place in the afternoon, a more convenient time, while out and about with the children I would have paused to enjoy the concert in it's entirety. I tend to be easily distracted and have no problem stopping to "smell the roses", that is if I am not already way behind from all my dawdling and rose sniffing along the way. Would I have recognized him as the great Joshua Bell? No, I would have assumed him to be a starving artist type or college student. Would I have thrown in some cash? Again, probably not as I never have cash on hand. When cash manages to find it's way into my wallet, hubby promptly helps it find it's way out again. Bottom line, I would have missed out on something really special.

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