Friday, May 04, 2007

In the presence of greatness

Imagine the scenario: A world-class musician playing classical pieces of music of the quality one would ordinary pay $100 for a ticket to see, yet located in the auditorium at a railway station. This virtuoso would "busk" - play in a public space for money. What response would he receive?

This is not idle speculation. The Washington Post put the public to the test at the L'Enfant Plaza on a Friday morning in the middle of rush hour. The musician: Joshua Bell, who had in recent weeks filled Boston's Symphony Hall. And he chose to play some of the most difficult yet acclaimed classical pieces of all time. Over 1000 people would pass through the area in the 45 minutes Bell was playing. How many stopped to listen? How much money did he make?

It took three minutes for the first person to stop. Another thirty seconds to receive his first donation - a single dollar from a person rushing by. In total only seven people stopped. And a total of $32 in donations was received. What does an exercise like this suggest to us about the pace of life, about our ability to recognise beauty, our willingness to pause in the presence of greatness? Or does it say something about the way things are valued - a twist on the old chestnut "if a great muso plays great music but noone listens, are they (is it) really any good?"

How often we feel neglected. That people pass us by without taking notice, giving appropriate affirmation... We are tempted to reflect on our own value in rather darker hues as a consequence. But if over 1000 people can pass by a virtuoso playing a multi-million dollar instrument with a unique skill and passion, does that diminish the player, the instrument or the music? Or does it serve to remind us that people do not always recognise and appreciate beauty and value?

You can read a detailed account of the event and reflections upon it at The Washington Post.

If you are feeling neglected today, maybe it's not you that's at fault, but a busy world unable to perceive and affirm beauty.

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