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Subway Stradivarius
A Bell for I Dunno

Bell Plays L'Enfant

Joshua Bell is 39 and one of the world’s greatest violinists. He has, as the Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten wrote on Sunday, “unapologetically embraced showmanship even as his concert career has become more and more august. He's soloed with the finest orchestras here and abroad, but he's also appeared on ‘ Sesame Street,’ done late-night talk TV and performed in feature films. That was Bell playing the soundtrack on the 1998 movie ‘The Red Violin.’ (He body-doubled, too, playing to a naked Greta Scacchi.) As composer John Corigliano accepted the Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score, he credited Bell, who, he said, ‘plays like a god.’ When Bell was asked if he'd be willing to don street clothes and perform at rush hour, he said: ‘Uh, a stunt?’ Well, yes. A stunt. Would he think it . . . unseemly? Bell drained his cup. ‘Sounds like fun,’ he said.”

For this incognito performance, Bell had only one condition for participating. The event had been described to him as a test of whether, in an incongruous context, ordinary people would recognize genius. His condition: "I'm not comfortable if you call this genius." "Genius" is an overused word, he said: It can be applied to some of the composers whose work he plays, but not to him. His skills are largely interpretive, he said, and to imply otherwise would be unseemly and inaccurate.

The morning of the performance he called a taxi to make the three-block trip from his hotel to the subway station: the violin, a 1913 Stradivari, had to be protected from the elements. And there he was, just inside the lobby of a Washington, D.C. subway station (L’Enfant Plaza), wearing a baseball cap and an almost raggedy short, at 7:51 a.m., January 12, playing like a god to morning rush hour foot traffic. The story is wonderful. Bell is almost entirely ignored except for two, three people who make the performance worthwhile, including a man who’d never stopped and bothered with street performers before, let alone performers playing classical music. But he was three minutes early for a meeting at the Energy Department. He’d been hearing the violin strains for a full minute on the elevator ride up from the subway. The sounds mesmerized. He had to stop and listen. For the most part, people just walk on by, too busy to get to their quietly desperate jobs to stop and listen to Bach or Schubert or Bell. Still…

A couple of minutes into it, something revealing happens. A woman and her preschooler emerge from the escalator. The woman is walking briskly and, therefore, so is the child. She's got his hand. "I had a time crunch," recalls Sheron Parker, an IT director for a federal agency. "I had an 8:30 training class, and first I had to rush Evvie off to his teacher, then rush back to work, then to the training facility in the basement." Evvie is her son, Evan. Evan is 3. You can see Evan clearly on the video. He's the cute black kid in the parka who keeps twisting around to look at Joshua Bell, as he is being propelled toward the door. "There was a musician," Parker says, "and my son was intrigued. He wanted to pull over and listen, but I was rushed for time." So Parker does what she has to do. She deftly moves her body between Evan's and Bell's, cutting off her son's line of sight. As they exit the arcade, Evan can still be seen craning to look. When Parker is told what she walked out on, she laughs. "Evan is very smart!"

It’s a long article but worth the read—and the video clips. Check it out…

And in case it all leaves you wanting more Bell, here he is playing the exuberant final movement of Lalo’s Symphonie éspagnole [mp3].

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