Master Violinist Returns to Subway Station Stage

Courtesy of AFP
Courtesy of AFP

Joshua Bell, one of the world’s foremost violinists, musical director of the acclaimed Academy of St. Martins in the Fields, was not feeling the love. You see, Mr. Bell was part of an experiment back in 2007 to see what would happen if a top notch musician, in the guise of a non-descript street player, provided an impromptu subway station concert. Not all that surprisingly, he was, for the most part, ignored as people were heading into work. Ironically, the video of this musical cold shoulder has seen more the 5 million hits. Now this isn’t the only famous person receiving relatively small attention with an unheralded concert. A more popular example is Jessie J who sang “Price Tag” in a New York subway station. Of course, she didn’t hide under a baseball cap, as Mr. Bell did, and she did one of her most famous songs; nonetheless, she drew a small crowd with the emphasis on small

Clearly the experiment speaks more about us, as travelers in this world, than about the musicians or their music. Apparently this station concert was so frequently brought to Mr. Bell’s attention that he just couldn’t take it any more:

Nearly every day for the past seven years, someone has reminded Bell of his subway performance, he said. “I wouldn’t want to be defined by just that experience,” Bell told The Associated Press. “Hopefully the rest of my body of work will carry more weight than that.” (from Associated Press article onWJLA)

To find redemption, Mr. Bell had a bit of a re-do. Once again, he played at a train station, but this time with no baseball cap, a few friends (nine students from the National Young Arts Foundation) and some notice to his fans. Again unsurprisingly, a huge crowd paid attention this time. I’m all sorts of glad that Mr. Bell feels the love now. It’s fabulous that he’s received the recognition his talent deserves. However receiving accolades is not a rare even for Mr. Bell. In pretty much any other venue in which he plays, hereceives plenty of recognition. Indeed, I’m hard pressed to think of any other classical artist who receives more acclaim. So the interesting bits to all of this are 1) why people brought it too his attention so frequently, 2) why he felt he needed to redeem himself and 3) did he succeed in said redemption? 

Obviously this is sheer speculation on my part, but I suspect that folks apprising Mr. Bell of his inability to draw attention to his talent in the original train station concert went along these lines: “You, who are so famous (albeit famous in the Classical world is a bit different than famous in the Pop/Rock world) with all your talent could do nothing to slow commuters down. Amazing!” In other words, I think they are really remarking that no Classical musician, playing as a street musician, could interest commuters enough to be late for work. Of course, I could be wrong and, in utter jealousy of Mr. Bell’s fame, they wanted to rub it in his face. 

I believe that many, despite our recognizing the foibles of our human nature and the drudge of a daily commute, this is a bit unsettling. We want to believe that something so core to our being, in which we invest lots of money and time, wouldn’t be so blithely ignored in the hustle and bustle of daily living. Why do we so easily toss aside what’s important to many of us, music, for the urgency of the moment? So, while I’m sure it got old to hear about the train station event, fundamentally, I think Mr. Bell also wanted to remind us of the power of music.

While this all could have been an “I’ll show you” moment from Mr. Bell, I believe that the redemption is not primarily for himself but rather to remove the tarnish on music itself and reminding us of what is important. In that, I think, Mr. Bell partially succeeds. Will we always stop and smell the roses and listen to the tune? Not so much. Will we, at least partially, be more aware of what we are experiencing now, rather than simply in our destination? I hope so.