Who could have predicted that Joshua Bell's 43-minute busking experiment in a D.C. Metro station would still be inspiring stories more than 10 years later?
And yet it is -- beyond the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning story in the Washington Post, a children's book in 2013 and a host of Internet-traded retellings of the incident, today the story will be told from yet another angle, in a National Symphony Orchestra Family Concert at The Kennedy Center that features none other than Joshua Bell himself.
Why does this story continue to tug at our collective imagination?
I spoke last week to Anne Dudley, the Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer who wrote the music for the family concert.
"This piece came about because of this celebrated incident.... Joshua busked in the Washington Metro, and he played for about an hour during morning rush hour. Thousands of people went by, and almost nobody stopped," Dudley said. "And at the end of an hour, I think he'd earned $32."
"But one of the things he noticed was that the people who wanted to stop were children, mostly," she said. "But their parents were very keen on rushing them along."
The concert is a multi-media event based on The Man with the Violin, the children's book by Kathy Stinton. Besides Joshua Bell and the National Symphony, it features narration by NPR's Michele Norris; and three screens with images by the book's illustrator Dusan Petricic, animated by Montreal production studio NORMAL.
Dudley's music "is like film music, it's telling the story," she said. "It starts off all hustle and bustle, with people in the rush hour, moving to and fro very quickly. Then the child hears the violin, the violin comes in solo and plays a short, sort of cadenza-y piece." The child is completely transported by the violin music and by Joshua and wants to stop. But everyone else is going about their daily business, and the child's mother drags him down to the metro, where gets on the train and goes to school. But "all the time he's at school, the music is playing in his head. So the themes that we've already heard will come back."
"There's a little sort of moral of the story," Dudley said. "At the end, after the day is over, the child goes home with his mother. They're in their apartment, it's very dull and rainy outside, and she's got the radio on." At that point, the music comes back on the radio -- the same music the child had heard in the morning. The announcer says, "Today thousands of people had the opportunity to hear one of the finest musicians in the world playing..."
At that point, the child admonishes the mother, "We should have stopped, we should have listened, we should have listened together..."
The arc of the story and main narration lines are from the book, "a really lovely book. The illustrations are beautiful, it's very artistic. If you were reading the book with children, there would be loads of things they would point out in the illustrations."
"The gentle moral that comes from the story is: listening to things together, with children, is a very special thing," Dudley said. Oftentimes, "children are hearing the pieces of music that we're familiar with -- for the first time. I remember the first time I heard 'Rhapsody in Blue,' and 'Rite of Spring' -- these wonderful pieces. That moment can never be recaptured. To be able to share it with a child is really quite magical."
The concert will be repeated in December with Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, which co-commissioned the work.
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