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Joshua Bell's 'Voice of the Violin'


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Last night at Lincoln Center in New York City, violinist Joshua Bell claimed his $75,000 Avery Fisher Prize for classical music. Few doubt he earned it.


NORRIS: So you might ask yourself why a man with a two-CD compilation out called "The Essential Joshua Bell," a virtuoso who plays more than 200 international bookings per year, found himself playing for loose change at a subway stop.


NORRIS: Joshua Bell is with us now to answer that question. Joshua, why would you do this?


JOSHUA BELL: Why? Well, I guess it was - it wasn't my idea, first of all. It was the idea of Gene Weingarten, this wonderful journalist from the Washington Post who came to me and said listen, I got an idea. I want to do a little experiment, would you mind playing in the subway. It was an interesting experience, just for me, personally.

NORRIS: Now, there was a wonderful article that appeared over the weekend in the Washington Post Magazine. What did Gene think might happen when he basically presented this proposition?

BELL: He really wanted to see how people react to music when you're not expecting it, or when it's out of context. I think the experiment could have been done with a street musician. The fact that I have a certain amount of credibility on the concert stage just kind of emphasized the points that he was trying to make or find out about. But it was during rush hour, in a place where people don't expect to hear music. Most people just ignored it altogether. And then there were only in the course of 40 minutes, I think seven people that stopped, actually listened, and appreciate it.

NORRIS: I'm interested in, if I can't try into getting your head, for someone who's accustomed to standing ovations from audiences, from an outpouring of affection. What does it feel like to play beautiful music and essentially be ignored?

BELL: Well, these people were standing at least.


BELL: It was at least a walking ovation.


BELL: It is weird because I played the Bach "Chaconne" for instance. And getting to the end and then realizing that people are still bustling by and not even acknowledging that I just concluded really one of the great, for instance the Bach "Chaconne," the great works of art ever created.

NORRIS: So you get to the end of the "Chaconne" and you're standing there. And normally you probably pull your arms to the side, square your shoulders, look out on an audience that's smiling back at you. What did you do at the end of that performance?

BELL: I just had to concentrate on trying to figure out what I'm going to play next. And then I, you know I started to really appreciate any sort of glance, or dollar, or a couple, you know, a comment here and there. I started to really appreciate anybody who's willing to listen. And it's just funny how my perspective changed. I would certainly, now, when I pass a street musician, I'll be even more sensitive than I was before.

NORRIS: Now this was a Friday morning just before 8:00 AM back in January. It was still cold here in Washington. Was it difficult to play in those conditions?


BELL: It was - well it was sort of an enclosed area and it wasn't too cold and I was wearing a baseball cap.

NORRIS: Ah, that's why people didn't recognize you.

BELL: Yeah, sure.


BELL: I'd like to think of it that way. Yeah, sure. Because they know I'm a Mets fan a...

NORRIS: And it was a Nationals cap, yeah.

BELL: And it was a Nationals cap, so how could they possibly recognize me. But finally, at the end, there was one girl that recognized me. She was kind of scratching her head because she had seen me perform at the Kennedy Center just a few weeks earlier and couldn't quite understand why I would be doing that, and she dropped $20 in which, I don't think he - Weingarten included in his total, in the $39 which he attributed to me.

I was kind of disappointed he didn't say $59. I think I earned $59 in 40 minutes, which I didn't think was all that bad actually.

NORRIS: Joshua? What did you do with that $59 that you earned?


NORRIS: How did you spend it?

BELL: I actually gave it to the - there was a girl that had lent me the violin - the violin case that I was using for the - to have the money dropped in. And she's a violinist herself. And I said she could keep it. So I don't know what she did with it.

NORRIS: Joshua Bell, thanks for talking to us. And by the way, congratulations on the Avery Fisher Prize.

BELL: That money I will - I will spend.


BELL: I haven't figured out where I'm going to spend it, but thank you very much for that.

NORRIS: That was Joshua Bell. His latest CD is called "The Essential Joshua Bell," and he just, yesterday, won the Avery Fisher Prize for outstanding achievement in classical music. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.