Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
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?
In 2007, The Washington Post created an experiment to gauge 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 this 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 that are usually reserved for concert halls, while 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, this apparent busker played 6 pieces on his violin for 43 minutes. 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.
This fictional book, which was inspired by the real-life story, has itself inspired another artwork: a new orchestral suite entitled The Man with the Violin: Suite for Violin and Orchestra. It is a co-commission by the National Arts Centre Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra, and composed by Oscar and Grammy Award-winning composer Anne Dudley. This first collaboration between Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) and the National Symphony Orchestra received its world premiere on Sunday February 12 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. It was performed by the National Symphony Orchestra and the man with the violin himself, Joshua Bell, and was conducted by Michael Stern, with narration by the American journalist Michele Norris (former host of NPR’s All Things Considered).
At last, the suite is receiving its anticipated Canadian premiere on December 20 at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, where it will be performed by the National Arts Centre Orchestra and titular soloist Joshua Bell. This time, it will be conducted by Alexander Shelley, Music Director of the NACO. And as with the world-premiere concert in Washington, Montreal studio Normal will again transport Petričić’s whimsical illustrations from book to stage by providing a multimedia visual accompaniment while a narrator interweaves the story with the music. In addition to the multimedia concert, the evening will feature several Christmas-related performances, led by The Choirs of Christ Church Cathedral performing a selection of choral classics including “HARK! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night.”
But please note: this special evening will begin prior to the actual concert. From 6:15 pm, the National Arts Centre will resound with pre-concert events and festivities that evoke the atmospheric bustle of the metro station where the Post experiment took place. A number of musicians will busk in the NAC’s newly-renovated public spaces:
Those inclined to pick up last-minute holiday gifts (and support music education in the process) will also have a unique opportunity. Friends of the NAC Orchestra will hold a silent auction of donated items from across Canada and around the world in the Southam Hall Mezzanine Foyer, with proceeds to benefit music education programs for young people. Finally, at evening’s end, Bell, Stinson, and Petričić will all be available to meet audience members and sign books and CDs.
“Kathy Stinson’s wonderful book reminds us all to notice things … rather than going about in our own little bubble,” composer Dudley states in a news release from the NAC. This one-night-only performance of The Man with the Violin: Suite — landing smack dab in the midst of the holiday frenzy — will remind us again to take a cue from young Dylan by slowing down . . . and savouring the beauty nestled within the unexpected.
News You Can Use
What: Joshua Bell’s Christmas with the NAC Orchestra, featuring The Man with the Violin: Suite for Violin and Orchestra, co-commissioned by National Symphony Orchestra (Kennedy Center, Washington DC) and National Arts Centre Orchestra (Ottawa, ON)
Who: Audiences of all ages
When: Wednesday, December 20, 2017, 7 pm,
Where: National Arts Centre, Southam Hall, 1 Elgin St, Ottawa, ON K1P 5W1
Info and Tickets: nac-cna.ca and 1.888.991.2787
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© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya