Wednesday, April 11, 2007

What If You Had Been There... ?

It was little more than a year ago that I had the incredible opportunity to see Joshua Bell in concert. It was very exciting for me to be able to see one of my favorite classical musicians perform in person. Better still, I sat front and center, only about 5 rows from the stage. He stood near the stage's edge, close to the crowds, and every move he made, every facial expression, even the sweat on his face was visible to me. It was a packed house that night and thunderous applause was sustained through several curtain calls and an encore. This is not surprising since this renowned, uber-talented violinist plays to crowded venues all over the world. Joshua Bell's cd's are good, but better still is it to hear him in person. It is music that is indescribable and leaves the audience breathless.

It was more than amazing, then, to read this Washington Post article about an experiment involving Joshua Bell that they staged in January with the famous artist. The article is long, but worth the reading time involved (it does contain some mild language). If you do nothing else, be sure to watch the videos that the Washington Post reporters took of the Avery Fisher winning artist performing to - not the crowds at the Carnegie, or the crowned heads of Europe, but- the bustling, rushing, working class crowds at the L'Enfant Plaza in D.C.

(I have condensed the article for those needing some background on the story before watching the videos)

At the top of the escalators are a shoeshine stand and a busy kiosk that sells newspapers, lottery tickets and a wallfull of magazines with titles such as Mammazons and Girls of Barely Legal. The skin mags move, but it's that lottery ticket dispenser that stays the busiest, with customers queuing up for Daily 6 lotto and Powerball and the ultimate suckers' bait, those pamphlets that sell random number combinations purporting to be "hot." They sell briskly. There's also a quick-check machine to slide in your lotto ticket, post-drawing, to see if you've won. Beneath it is a forlorn pile of crumpled slips.

On Friday, January 12, the people waiting in the lottery line looking for a long shot would get a lucky break -- a free, close-up ticket to a concert by one of the world's most famous musicians -- but only if they were of a mind to take note.

In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

It was all videotaped by a hidden camera. You can play the recording once or 15 times, and it never gets any easier to watch. Try speeding it up, and it becomes one of those herky-jerky World War I-era silent newsreels. The people scurry by in comical little hops and starts, cups of coffee in their hands, cellphones at their ears, ID tags slapping at their bellies, a grim danse macabre to indifference, inertia and the dingy, gray rush of modernity.

There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.

As it happens, exactly one person recognized Bell, and she didn't arrive until near the very end. For Stacy Furukawa, a demographer at the Commerce Department, there was no doubt. She doesn't know much about classical music, but she had been in the audience three weeks earlier, at Bell's free concert at the Library of Congress. And here he was, the international virtuoso, sawing away, begging for money. She had no idea what the heck was going on, but whatever it was, she wasn't about to miss it.

Furukawa positioned herself 10 feet away from Bell, front row, center. She had a huge grin on her face. The grin, and Furukawa, remained planted in that spot until the end.

"It was the most astonishing thing I've ever seen in Washington," Furukawa says. "Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn't do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?"

When it was over, Furukawa introduced herself to Bell, and tossed in a twenty. Not counting that -- it was tainted by recognition -- the final haul for his 43 minutes of playing was $32.17. Yes, some people gave pennies.

What would you have done if you had been one of the 1,000 people who had passed Joshua Bell that day? It's a question that, if I am honest with myself, I am ashamed to answer.

1 comment:

Abagale said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.