“Hi, does your camera make a clicking sound? You have to shut it off. He’ll hear you. And he’ll stop playing.”
Three minutes before Joshua Bell took the makeshift stage, and his press representative was prepping the front row. The world-famous violinist always played in almost perfect silence — in concert halls, grand ballrooms and even in palaces.
But today, for the second time, he was playing near the D.C. Metro.
Gene Weingarten, the Washington Post reporter who asked Bell to take his $3 million violin underground for the first time in 2007, introduced Bell to the crowd of hundreds who packed the main hall of Union Station.
Back then, Weingarten explained, there were no cameras to be clicked. He hadn’t told anyone that Bell was playing. So instead of the crowds arriving two hours early to get a good view, more than 1,000 commuters in L’Enfant Plaza rushed by Bell without stopping to hear the music. The popularity of the resulting story, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” is what brought so many people out to hear Bell perform Tuesday afternoon.
“Ladies and gentleman, and most especially children, who were the best audience the first time…” Weingarten said into a microphone to introduce Bell.
The violinist stepped out to a deafening applause, and the nine young musicians who were accompanying him beamed and blushed.
In the front most row were about a dozen children, some home-schooled and some playing hooky. When Bell played incognito seven years ago, it was the children who most often stopped to listen before their parents rushed them away.
Now, it was again the kids who were the most free to show their excitement. A boy in a bright orange t-shirt was clapping his hands so hard his palms were turning pink. His name was Sean, he was 9 years old and he too, plays violin, though he doesn’t expect to be as famous as Joshua Bell.
“But I’d like to have a concert in my backyard soon,” Sean said.
When Bell asked the children, “do any of you play violin?” after performing two pieces of Bach, Sean raised his hand so high that he lifted his whole body up from the marble floor.
He doesn’t understand why no one stopped to listen to Bell the first time. “I guess they had to catch a Metro train,” he said. “But like, the trains come so frequently. I would have just stopped.”
“I would have stopped” is what much of the crowd was discussing while they waited for Bell to play. Some arrived two hours early, just to hear 30 minutes of music. The main hall of Union Station was so packed that when the students who accompanied Bell performed an opening set, people in the back of the crowd kept clapping after the students left the stage– not realizing that the music they were then hearing was a recording.
But by the time Bell was looking out to the masses who had come to hear him, it was clear that as he had hoped, the music he plays can still inspire. “Wow,” he said. “This is more like it!”