Would YOU have stopped to listen?



Sesaya specializes in music and arts education.

Who could have predicted that an experiment in aesthetics by The Washington Post would inspire a Pulitzer Prize, a picture book and most recently, an orchestral suite?

Image courtesy of AnnickPress.com

In 2007, The Washington Post created an experiment to gage if DC commuters, most of them working in government jobs, would recognize and respond to beauty if they encountered it – not in its usual context of a performance venue, but amidst the habitual frenzy of the morning rush hour. In his evocative article Pearls Before Breakfast, Gene Weingarten describes the idea as 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?”

So a professional concert violinist was asked to play classical pieces usually reserved for concert halls, standing against a wall outside the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station in an indoor arcade dressed in nondescript street clothes. On a Friday morning in January, at the height of rush hour, an apparent busker played 6 pieces on his violin for 43 minutes – and out of the 1,100 or so commuters who chanced to pass by, only 7 people stopped to listen and only one person recognized him as violin virtuoso Joshua Bell performing on his 18th Century Stradivarius violin! The article (itself a work of art) garnered Weingarten a Pulitzer Prize and sparked dialogue that continues even now.

Since then: that experiment has catalyzed subsequent artworks. In 2013, Canadian author Kathy Stinson wrote an award-winning picture book The Man with the Violin, illustrated by Dušan Petričić and published by Annick Press. The story is inspired by a real-life boy Evan, who was a 3-year old preschooler at the time of Bell’s Metro performance. According to Pearls Before Breakfast, Evan wanted to stay to listen to the music, but was pulled away by his mother in her haste to drop him at childcare before heading to a meeting. In Stinson’s book, a fictional boy named Dylan likewise wants to stop and listen to the violinist at the Metro station. Also like Evan, he is hurried along by his mother, who realizes what they walked away from only afterwards, when she recognizes music on the radio as the same played by the violinist at the Metro station.

Kathy Stinson (photo: KathyStinson.com)

By turn, the fictional book, which was inspired by the real-life story, has inspired yet another artwork. The National Arts Centre has just announced that a new orchestral suite entitled The Man with the Violin: Suite for Violin and Orchestra, a co-commission by the National Arts Centre Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra, and composed by the Oscar and Grammy Award-winning composer Anne Dudley. This suite marks the first collaboration between Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra. It will receive its world premiere on Sunday February 12 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, where it will be performed by the National Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Michael Stern, with narration by the American journalist Michele Norris (former host of NPR’s All Things Considered) and soloist Joshua Bell. For the orchestral version, Montreal production studio NORMAL will animate Petričić’s illustrations, which evoke the young Dylan’s wonderment at his chance encounter with Bell’s music during an otherwise typical day. The 65-minute all-ages program will also include The Love for Three Oranges – Suite by Sergei Prokofiev, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas, Mother Goose Suite by Maurice Ravel, and end with an interactive Kid’s Chat.

While a quick trip to Washington to hear the suite’s world premiere is tempting, the  performance is, alas, sold out. Those on this side of the border can anticipate the suite’s Canadian premiere on December 20, 2017 at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, where it will be performed by Joshua Bell and the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and conducted by Music Director Alexander Shelley.

Violinist and Conductor Joshua Bell (photo courtesy of Kennedy-Center.org)

News You Can Use

What: Joshua Bell in The Man with the Violin, co-commissioned by National Symphony Orchestra (Kennedy Center) and National Arts Centre Orchestra

When and WhereWorld Premiere: Sunday, February 12, 2017, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra, Kennedy Center, Washington, DC
Canadian Premiere: Wednesday, December 20, 2017, performed by the National Arts Centre Orchestra, National Arts Centre, Ottawa, ON

Who: Audiences of all ages

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© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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