Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Undercover, Underappreciated ART

What if great art – brilliant art – were right in front of you?  Would you care?  Would you NOTICE?  Would you stop your busy, rushing about life for at least a moment or two to take it in and appreciate it?

That was the premise behind the Washington Post experiment in 2007 – would morning Metro commuters in Washington DC take the time to listen and appreciate the music of one of the world’s best musicians, Joshua Bell?  The piece Gene Weingarten wrote in the Post on the experiment enthralled me at the time and also won a Pulitzer Prize.  (Article here:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/pearls-before-breakfast-can-one-of-the-nations-great-musicians-cut-through-the-fog-of-a-dc-rush-hour-lets-find-out/2014/09/23/8a6d46da-4331-11e4-b47c-f5889e061e5f_story.html

As you can see if you read Weingarten’s piece, the experiment that day at L’Enfant Metro yielded dismal results:  Bell played his violin for 43 minutes. 1,097 people had the opportunity to hear his music.  Only 7 people bothered to pause for at least one minute and LISTEN.  And his take for performing was a measly $32.17 (not counting the $20 bill put in at the end by the only commuter to recognize him).

That got me to thinking, as I often do and as seems to be a thread on this blog, about APPRECIATION, BEAUTY, and ART.  How many times do we have the opportunity to be in the presence of beauty, of ART, and how many times are we too busy to notice or care?  DC metro residents were given a second chance today – Joshua Bell came back to perform again in a train station, again for free.  This time the Post told us in advance.  And this time the location was more upscale – Bell played a half hour concert with some young musicians he mentors in the main hallway of Union Station. 

Crowd at Union Station waiting for concert
So, even though I really know nothing about classical music (and honestly, have often found it boring), I decided to plan my day around this event.  I took the metro to Union Station and arrived about 40 minutes before the concert.  The hall was already full of excited people, and I had to push and squirm a bit to get anywhere near the front.  It was quickly clear that I would not really SEE Mr. Bell perform.  But this was MUSIC – meant to be heard and not seen.  At exactly 12:30 pm an announcer came out and talked a bit about Mr. Bell and the program.  Then Gene Weingarten (whose work I really like) came out and spoke about Joshua Bell’s first go-round in a DC Metro station.  Then came THE MUSICIANS. 

The first thing I noticed about Joshua Bell is that he looked young!  And so handsome!  And so NOT what I would consider a “typical classical” musician.  He had on dark pants and a blue, un-tucked shirt.  Then he played…  Oh did he play.  The music filled the huge hall of Union Station and seemed to dance deep into my bones.  It was lovely.  Some of the time I closed my eyes so I could just hear it and sense it.  Some of the time I looked around at the amazing architecture of the station.  (And some of the time I wasted wishing the lady in front of me would move her head so I could see better.) 

Joshua Bell taking his bows
I wish you could have been there with me.  I could not identify the songs he was playing or the composers and I knew nothing about the “keys” or “chords” or “bowing” (is that a term?) or whatever else the more musically educated people in the audience knew.  But I knew it was art.  And I knew I was glad to have been given the opportunity to experience it.  And, as Joshua Bell said with a huge grin on his face about THIS experience playing in a DC station, “This is more like it!”.

My favorite photo - Mr. Bell's music stand.  I cannot read music, but isn't this beautiful?
On my way back to my train, guess what I saw?  A violinist.  Not Mr. Bell – he had rushed off to get somewhere I am sure.  But an older African American man, with his case on the ground for collecting donations just like Joshua’s had been in the Post experiment.  I stood and listened.  And appreciated.

As a person involved in the performing arts herself, I often try and put money in the hat for street performers.  Sometimes that doesn’t work out because I don’t carry much CASH and if I get money out of the ATM it is 20s, and I am sorry, but I am not in the financial position to put $20 in every performer’s music case or hat..  Today I decided on a new system – I am going to the bank now to get 20 $1 bills.  I will keep them in a special part of my purse and use them just for thanking artists – musicians, jugglers, poets, whoever is performing on the street or in a station. 

I think having that little stash of money will not only help me be prepared to tip the artists, it will remind me to open my eyes and SEE THEM.  May this piece remind you to do the same.  Art is all around us if we take the time to appreciate it. 

P.P.S. – here is a link to a quick video I shot during the concert.  I tried to film the experience – the beautiful space we were in, the crowd, but mostly, THE MUSIC.  As you will see, I did not have a terrific view of Mr. Bell.  http://youtu.be/aO1JSK8YHY8  

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