The stunt was seven years ago, but no one will let him forget it.
Hey, did you hear about the famous violinist who played in the Metro and no one paid attention?
Yes, Joshua Bell must say. That was me.
Technically, 27 people did stop the day The Washington Post asked the Grammy-winning violinist to don a baseball cap and pose as a street performer playing for change in the Metro. It was a social experiment for a magazine article: If a world-famous musician and his $3 million fiddle brought some of history’s most beautiful music to a rush-hour crowd, would people stop and listen? “In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?,” the story wondered. The answer: 1,070 people passed Bell without paying him any attention.
Now, after being asked about it nearly every day since, Bell is bringing his violin back to the Metro. This time, on his own terms.
At 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 30, Bell will perform for 30 minutes in the main hall of Union Station. He’ll trade the baseball hat for a crisp black shirt, hidden cameras for media coverage and busy commuters for what he hopes will be a large and engaged audience there to hear a program of Mendelssohn and Bach.
The goal, Bell says, is to promote music education (nine students he mentored through the National YoungArts Foundation will be accompanying him), his new album that debuts the same day and an upcoming HBO special.
But there’s something in the way he sighs as he talks about the original experiment that gives away why, after all the attention he received from it, he wants a do-over.
What he sees in the video of the event isn’t what bothers him; he sort of expected that people would be too busy to stop. It’s what he hears that he doesn’t like.
Bell says he performs best when all the pressure is on, when hundreds of people are paying hundreds of dollars to hear him play music that is hundreds of years old. It warrants perfection.
“You really should be able to hear a pin drop in the audience, for the magic of Bach to happen,” Bell says. “That was not happening when everyone was rushing by, making noise.”
The original experiment has been transformed into a children’s book and the article won a Pulitzer Prize. Bell’s publicist keeps track of his name on the Internet, and nearly every week, she says, someone else blogs about the story as a metaphor for everything from salesmen ignoring potential customers to Christians ignoring Jesus. But it still makes Bell sigh.
“I’m in dangerous territory of it becoming the main thing I’m known for in my life. I really don’t want that on my tombstone: Here he is, underground again,” he says.
He doesn’t want the subway stunt to define him, but that doesn’t mean he can’t embrace a timely public-transit encore.
So the do-over is for him, his perfectionist tendencies, and for all the people who came up and said “I wish I would have been there!” (Like former president Bill Clinton, who said it to Bell at a recent concert in New York. “If he had been there, no one would have paid attention to me anyway,” the violinist says.)
The publicist is calling it an “In Case You Missed It” concert, or ICYMI, a phrase-turned-acronym used to share hours-old news stories on Twitter. In this case, the “you” who missed it is everybody, and the hope is that the do-over will trigger yet another Internet acronym: the “fear of missing out” for the second time. FOMO, they hope, will draw a crowd. FOMO is why people say “I wish I would have been there.” And FOMO is why Joshua Bell said yes to participating in reporter Gene Weingarten’s 2007 story in the first place.
“Though I don’t necessarily use that expression,” Bell said. “I’m very fortunate that I get a lot of interesting invitations to projects, crazy situations with all kinds of musicians and actors and things, and I say yes, yes, yes. I don’t want to miss out on some interesting experience.”
He’s been in a movie with Meryl Streep, appeared on “Sesame Street” and performed for President Obama and British royalty.
That’s 200-some performances a year, all at his preferred pin-dropping quiet.
He knows he can’t expect that kind of quiet Tuesday at Union Station, where he was invited to put on the event. But he’s hoping that with a crowd there to hear him, the magic will still happen. He can craft the story’s epilogue.
Hey, did you hear about the famous violinist who played in the Metro and everyone paid attention?