An extensive article in The Washington Post's Sunday magazine yesterday documents an experiment carried out this past January 12, beginning at just before 8 a.m. — the middle of the morning rush hour. Bell performed six classical pieces, including the Chaconne from Bach's Partita No. 2, for about 45 minutes as 1,097 commuters, most on their way to government jobs, passed by.
His performance was organized by the Post "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?"
Apparently not. Sixty-three people marched past the violinist without a glance while he was playing the Chaconne on his 1713 Stradivarius. The Post writes that, in the 45 minutes that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to listen for a minute or so, while 1,070 people hurried by without even appearing to notice.
When asked what he thought might occur during such an experiment, Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, said that, even assuming Bell wasn't recognized, out of 1,000 people there would be "35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening." He added that he thought a crowd would certainly gather and that Bell would make about $150.
As it turned out, Bell earned $32 and change. The Post quotes him as saying, "That's not so bad, considering. That's 40 bucks an hour. I could make an okay living doing this, and I wouldn't have to pay an agent."
The event was pitched to Bell as a test of whether, in an unlikely setting, "ordinary people would recognize genius." Whether or not she recognized his genius, at least Brazil native Edna Souza, who has been shining shoes at L'Enfant Plaza for six years, recognized something unusual. She dislikes buskers — she says they are make too much noise and prevent her from talking with her customers, which isn't good for business.
But asked about Joshua Bell, she says while he was also "too loud," "he was pretty good, that guy. It was the first time I didn't call the police."