Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, was asked a hypothetical question: “What would happen if one of the world’s great violinists performed incognito before a traveling rush-hour audience of over 1,000 people?” “Let’s assume,” Slatkin said, “that he is not recognized. . . and just taken for granted as a street musician. . . Still, I don’t think that if he’s really good, he’s going to go unnoticed. He’d get a larger audience in Europe . . . but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop.” “So, a crowd would gather?” he was asked. “Oh, yes.” The interviewer concluded, “Thanks, Maestro. As it happens, this is not hypothetical. It really happened.” It happened with former child prodigy Joshua Bell, who now at 39 is an internationally acclaimed virtuoso. Earlier this year Bell had filled the house at Boston’s stately Symphony Hall, where you had to pay over $100 for a good seat. But on January 12 of this year, at 7:51 a.m., in the middle of the morning rush hour, Joshua Bell was just another beggar in the Washington DC Metro Subway Station, competing for the attention of busy people on their way to work. He positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket, wearing jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin — a rare Stradivarius made in 1713, and worth over $4 million. Placing the open case at his feet, he began to play. For the next 45 minutes, in the D.C. Metro, Bell played Mozart and Schubert as over 1,000 people streamed by. Most of them hardly took notice. Only 27 people stopped, who threw a grand total of $32.17 in his violin case. The Washington Post said that it was “an experiment in context, perception, and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste. In a banal setting, at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”
They videotaped the performance, part of which you can see on YouTube. In the video, one man riding the escalator turns to see from where the music is coming. His name is John Picarello. He hit the top of the escalator just after Bell began his final piece, a reprise of “Chaconne.” In the video, you see Picarello stop dead in his tracks, locate the source of the music, and take up a position past the shoeshine stand, where he does not budge for the next nine minutes. A reporter, telling him only that he was being interviewed about his morning commute, asked if anything unusual had happened to him on his trip into work. Of the more than 40 people interviewed, Picarello was the only one who immediately mentioned the violinist. He said, “There was a musician playing at the top of the escalator at L’Enfant Plaza.” “Haven’t you seen musicians there before?” the reporter wanted to know. “Not like this one.” “What do you mean?” “This was a superb violinist. I’ve never heard anyone of that caliber. He was technically proficient, with very good phrasing. He had a good fiddle, too, with a big, lush sound. It was a treat, just a brilliant, incredible way to start the day.” Picarello knows classical music. He is even a fan of Joshua Bell — but he didn’t recognize him.
Greatness is not always recognized or appreciated. John, in his gospel, makes the amazing statement concerning Jesus: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:10-11).