A few weeks ago a video clip was being sent around featuring Joshua Bell in concert--at a subway stop. Men and women rushed past, and very few of them paused even briefly to listen. One man recognized Bell, and gave him a $20.
Journalists had a good deal of fun analyzing the event, pondering the risk to which Bell was submitting his priceless violin, and expressing disbelief that the passing hordes were so uniformly oblivious to the genius in their midst.Yet there is little to be surprised about here, it seems to me. In the first place, most people who ride the subway are not just passing the time--they're on their way somewhere. And in any case, a crowded subway passage is not a very pleasant place to stand around listening to Paganini or Bach. Classical music requires a degree of silence, focus, and concentration that even fine concert halls sometimes fail to provide. The man in the row behind you who's absent-mindedly rubbing his program across the wales of his corduroy slacks can ruin an entire evening, and make you wish you were sitting in a comfortable chair at home, listening to a CD.
And although Joshua Bell is by all accounts a masterful violinist, the world is full of violinists that are only a degree or two less adept and expressive than he. The cult of the rising super-star virtuoso has kept the classical music business afloat for a long time now, but it has the unfortunate effect of diminishing somewhat our appreciation of music being performed by far more obscure, though only slightly less talented, artists.