In D.C., we’re surrounded by inspiration — and often oblivious to it

Petula Dvorak
Columnist January 14, 2013

I thought she was taking pictures of the spectacle with her phone, so I rushed over to the produce aisle to talk.

“No, I was just looking up a recipe,” the woman said. She turned her eyes heavenward, where the sonorous music of angels and kings was pouring forth from a mezzanine above the fruits and vegetables at Whole Foods Market on P Street NW.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

“I actually find that distracting,” she said, shutting down the conversation and pushing her cart past me.

It was late Sunday afternoon, and the temple of $10 pomegranate seeds was hosting an hour-long performance by four trombonists from the National Symphony Orchestra, part of a series of free concerts at churches, restaurants, art galleries and other venues called NSO in Your Neighborhood. The quartet unleashed luscious ribbons of music, from Beethoven to Adele, to a less than appreciative crowd.

“Whatever, I’m just here trying to get my shopping done,” said a man who clipped me in the back of the knees as I stopped to watch. I was blocking his path to the $3.99 fennel bulbs.

The reaction reminded me of the amazing piece that won Post columnist Gene Weingarten the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2007. Weingarten pulled a stunt. He persuaded world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell to play his 1713 Stradivari violin for the rush hour crowd at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station on a weekday morning, then watched more than 1,000 commuters blast past without even bothering to stop.

Haven’t we learned anything? Apparently not.

As hundreds of thousands of people prepare to descend on Washington for the presidential inauguration next week, it might be a good time for us to appreciate what they will find here. No city in the world rivals Washington when it comes to public access to art and culture.

Nearly every day at 6 p.m., there is a free concert on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center. On many Saturday mornings, there’s a free performance for children at the National Theater. Any day, you can walk into a Smithsonian museum without paying a dime and see history, art and culture.

I’ve walked into the National Gallery of Art on a whim — because I was telling my older boy about Leonardo da Vinci — and took a quick look at the only da Vinci in North America. Then we headed back out, crossed the Mall, and saw the cheeky genius of Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei at the Hirshhorn. If we’d wanted to, we could have added a peek at the Hope Diamond at the Museum of Natural History. And in April, we’ll be able to walk through an outdoor gallery of light at Lumen8 Anacostia.

And that’s in addition to all the obvious grandeur we treat with the same wonder as our outdoor furniture: the monuments and memorials of marble and stone, the soaring architecture that we can visit 24 hours a day along the Mall.

In short, we are so lucky to live here. But it is easy to forget that we are surrounded by so much inspiration. We do it every day in small ways, blowing by the monuments on our way to work, tuning out the talented bucket drummers at Gallery Place, missing the cherry blossom peak year after year.

At Whole Paycheck, (oops, I mean, Whole Foods), there was an appreciative crowd of friends and family who gathered to hear the NSO musicians. The shoppers, for the most part, went about their business.

I asked trombonist Barry Hearn what it felt like to play for an audience more engrossed in Swiss chard and Brussels sprouts than his amazing interpretation of Gershwin.

“We’re happy to just play, to reach as many people as we can reach,” Hearn replied diplomatically.

When he was performing, I searched for shoppers who were pausing to absorb and appreciate the music. Can you guess how many that was?

One.

Jerry Lane, a 63-year-old D.C. accountant who had brought his pastor to do some shopping, stopped to take it in by the fresh fish counter. In his long wool coat and dapper tie, he folded his hands in front of him and looked up at the brass instruments.

“This is pretty special,” he said. “It’s a treat I was not expecting.”

Even in a city filled with treats.

To read previous Dvorak columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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