National Arts Centre Orchestra: Violinist Joshua Bell turns an experiment in a subway stop into a musical triumph

Joshua Bell. Photo Shervin Lainez

What began as a journalist’s idea of a social experiment in the Washington D.C. subway system has become so much more.

When the Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten suggested to the superstar American violinist Joshua Bell that he busk at a metro station in 2007, Bell went along for a bit of a lark.

Weingarten wanted to measure whether the passersby would register the beautiful music coming from Bell’s Stradivarius. Or were they so used to tuning out the world that they wouldn’t stop at all.

That’s pretty much what happened.

Even though the fourth wall between performer and audience was removed, the people were rushing off to work and not paying attention — except for some children. And that’s where the story continues. Weingarten won a Pulitzer prize for his story and the attention paid to the event was turned into an award winning picture book by Kathy Stinson, illustrated by Dusan Petricic called The Man With The Violin.

Now it’s grown again … this time into a multi-media Canadian premiere that will be performed at the National Arts Centre on Wednesday night featuring a video animation by Montreal’s NORMAL Studio; orchestral music by Oscar-winning composer Anne Dudley and a solo performance by Bell. The event is a co-commission between the NAC Orchestra and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

“In a concert hall everyone is focused and quiet and paying attention,” Bell said in an interview before the show. “I did it again one more time some years later in the Washington station. It was publicized ahead of time. That was fun to see the difference. About 3,000 people showed up and they sat at my feet. It was a fun antidote to what had happened the first time.

“I agreed to it (the first time) out of a sense of adventure and fun. That was it. I didn’t think it would be a big deal. I thought he’d write an article and that would be it. It turns out it took on a life of its own.”

There’s nothing wrong with busking, he said, noting that in some places it is expected and that becomes a venue. “In Copenhagen, for example, it’s a tradition.”

But the point was to be in a place where it wasn’t expected. For Bell, the experiment shows that for any music, or performance for that matter, that involves the listener processing what is happening, you need attention and quiet.

After 11 years of answering questions about the subway show, Bell admits to be getting a little tired with answering the same questions, but he soldiers on for a good reason.

“I do remember some children walking by, not to say they had some greater sense of art, but at least they seemed to wonder what the heck was going on.”

That inspired the book. And it allows him to speak about the importance of music education:

“I believe that education for kids and young people is extremely important at the local level,” he said as he offered praise for the National Arts Centre’s music education efforts.

“We need it much more in our schools. Our experiment has given us something we can show to kids that I think will get their interest.”

It even works in his own family. Bell has three children of his own.

“They hear me practice a lot, so I try to set an example. I also listen to them practicing. They play violin, piano and cello.” He has a budding quartet happening.

“That was the idea. I just wanted them to have music in their lives. If you have music in your life, it’s enhanced.

“Life without music is just unimaginable to me.” It’s more than just his profession, he says. “It enriches me. What would life be like if you had never read a book. For me it’s the same.

“Making music, especially with kids, really makes a difference. I’ve gone to many schools through programs I’m involved with. They go into very tough inner city schools and it’s unbelievable. Attendance rates shoot up and test scores go up. Confidence and self-esteem improves. It’s remarkable.

“I have never met a single person who felt music should not be in school.”

These days when Bell passes a busker, he tosses in some money.

“I have sympathy for them. I always did, but now I give more. If it’s a violinist playing I give even more if they are really good.”

One of the intriguing facts was that, in the Washington metro station in 2007, Bell was playing his 300-year old  ‘Gibson ex Huberman’ Stradivarius, which was made in 1713 during Stradivari’s Golden Era. He says he had no fear for the valuable instrument.

“I wasn’t worried. It was a nice station in a nice area and I had people with me.

“I take my violin everywhere. It’s like taking baby along. In New York I ride the subway, even when I’m performing in Carnegie Hall. Occasionally someone will recognize me and say ‘I’m on my way to your concert’.”

Joshua Bell’s Christmas
with the National Arts Centre Orchestra
Where: Southam Hall
When: Dec. 20 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.