“For me, it was only a little stunt,” says American violinist Joshua Bell of his now-infamous busking session at a Washington metro station. “I certainly had no idea that we would be talking about it nearly 11 years later, which I would be asked about it pretty much every day of my life.”

In 2007, the Grammy Award-winning artist was requested by Washington Post journalist Gene Weingarten to execute roughly 30-40 minutes of audio in L’Enfant Plaza station. Hidden cameras recorded the more than 1,000 passersby; from those, seven ceased to listen and one recognized him.

The story of this famed violinist from the subway station has proved fascinating — and uplifting. Kathy Stinson and Dusan Petricic recount the tale in their award-winning children’s picture book, The Man with the Violin. Appropriately, the book was transformed into music by composer Anne Dudley; this season, Bell heads to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa to carry out the job’s Canadian premiere.

“I am all for small experiences,” he says, recalling the genesis of this experiment. Despite Weingarten’s lofty expectations, Bell expected a more apathetic outcome of playing Bach for unsuspecting commuters. “I told him, ‘It is not going to have a huge crowd.'” His prediction proved true, and he attributes the mild reaction to the performance environment, which lacked the interaction that he finds essential to experiencing classical music. “It is all about interaction,” he says. “That is the beauty of it, is that interaction and the way that it stimulates your mind.”

Bell is a classical musician who enjoys a degree of celebrity, a rare subset among professional violinists. “On a given day, I may be stopped several times,” he says, adding that he has seen more often nearer to places like Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall.

Since his performance from the metro station, Bell has joined the faculty at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music as a senior lecturer and became the music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, an appointment recently extended through 2020.

And Bell’s celebrity has arguably improved; similar to Renée Fleming’s singing of the American national anthem in the 2014 Super Bowl, Bell’s busking was a bridge-building activity, linking his high degree of artistry into a space shared with a much wider demographic of people outside the traditional concert hall.

Compared to the majority of Bell’s performances — for an audience of willing, eager listeners — his expertise busking was one-sided. “It is not the most fun thing in the world, being ignored,” he says with a laugh. “It is not about me being ignored, it is more about the music itself. When you are playing Bach’s Chaconne — that is among the most profound, amazing inventions of the human mind — and you are throwing it out rather than being listened to, not having any value, that’s what’s kind of annoying as a celebrity.”

Maybe if he’d chosen a “place” closer into a hub of classical music — state, Carnegie Hall — Bell could have handled a higher speed of recognition than his 1/1000 at L’Enfant Plaza. Still, the violinist knows that his celebrity is discerning, and reliant on being in particular circles. “After a concert, I am a star,” he admits. “Everybody who has come is there to listen to me.”

Yet, for much of the time, Bell’s fame is very similar to that of many classical musicians. Names like Radu Lupu and Yannick Nézet-Séguin mean a lot to people who care greatly for the genre, yet one of the general public, they are far from household names.

“I sort of like my little dose of it,” says Bell of the celebrity. That fame is surely attributable to his ability and dedication to his art, yet he isn’t averse to finding meaningful methods of attracting new fans. He’s collaborated with the likes of Josh Groban (Ennio Morricone’s Cinema Paradiso) and Scarlett Johansson (Before My Time, Academy Award-winner for best original song in the documentary Chasing Ice) and he can be heard playing the first movie soundtracks for Angels amp; Demons (with Hans Zimmer) and Defiance (with James Newton Howard). He’s appeared on The Tonight Show and Sesame Street, and he made cameos in all 3 seasons of Mozart in the Jungle.

“Lots of great musicians would say, ‘I would not be caught dead doing something like this; it is not becoming of a classical artist to do something like this.'” Bell, however, sees great value in extending his job beyond the strict boundaries of classical circles. He’s fulfilled first-time concertgoers who come to listen to him perform, after hearing his work from different realms. “I think that is great, if it will help bring people”

In the time of social networking, there may be a fuzzy line for classical musicians between using the platforms for visibility and one of a kind self-promotion, and resorting to gimmickry or decorative stunts. Bell weighs carefully on the subject: “What I do know is that you can never do anything that pleases everybody.”

Perhaps thankfully, Bell admits that his forte lies less in using social media than at the top-tier artistry that firmly supports his celebrity. He delegates to specialists in the area; although, “It’s like pulling teeth, a little bit, for them to get me to give them articles, like images in my dressing room. I have a tough time concentrating on doing this type of thing when I am preparing Brahms’s Violin Concerto.”

Fair enough.

Joshua Bell plays the NAC Orchestra on Dec. 20 in Ottawa’s .

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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