Famed violinist plays do-over at DC train station

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell brought Bach back to a train station Tuesday, as he did in 2007, but this time Washington noticed.

Hundreds of music fans packed Union Station near the Capitol shoulder to shoulder to hear the 46-year-old Bell perform works by Bach and Mendelssohn, along with nine young musicians he has mentored.

Seven years ago, Bell famously performed incognito for tips in a Washington subway station, but almost no one stopped to listen. The subway performance was a stunt with The Washington Post to see if anyone would notice a world-class musician playing some of the world’s great music during their rush to work. It made for a good story that won the Pulitzer Prize and inspired a children’s book and even messages in church sermons.

This time Bell’s fans had some advance notice, and it made all the difference. Music is a two-way exchange and needs an audience, Bell said after his performance that drew big cheers, whistles and shouts of “bravo” from people young and old in the rapt crowd.

When Bell asked the audience if anyone else played the violin, 16-year-old Katie Banks of Sterling, Virginia, shot her hand in the air. The young musician who plays with the American Youth Symphonic Orchestra skipped school to see Bell. She’s been playing violin since she was 3 and knows one of Bach’s violin concertos almost by heart.

“I can play it in my head along with him,” she said. “That’s kind of fun.”

Banks’ 8-year-old sister Sara chimed in, saying she wants to be a violin player when she grows up.

Vindicated might be too strong a word, but Bell said the warm welcome back to Washington “certainly capped off the whole experience.”

Nearly every day for the past seven years, someone has reminded Bell of his subway performance.

“I wouldn’t want to be defined by just that experience,” Bell told The Associated Press. “Hopefully the rest of my body of work will carry more weight than that.”

The Grammy-winning violinist now wants to call attention to the need for music education in every school. He was lucky, he said, to have parents who encouraged him to play from an early age. Now students make it through school without any music or art instruction.

Bell performed with young musicians he mentored for an upcoming HBO special “Joshua Bell: A YoungArts MasterClass,” which debuts Oct. 14.

Also on Tuesday, Bell released his first album of Bach violin concertos and arrangements for violin and orchestra. He began his career playing Bach’s music but resisted recording it until now.

“Bach is in some ways the holy grail in classical music,” Bell said. “It’s so important to me but important that I get it right. … I kind of finally felt ready.”

As always, Bell played his multi-million-dollar Stradivarius violin. It was made in 1713 — around the same time Bach was writing his music.

In the train station, Bell and his protégés weren’t able to play for tips this time. Union Station doesn’t allow it. But Bell said he does look at street musicians differently now.

“It’s not really fun to be playing for people walking by,” said Bell, who lives in New York City. “When I walk by I always give something now because after my experience, I don’t want to be the one who walks by and doesn’t pay attention. I’m sometimes occasionally recognized by the street performers’ and they say ‘hey, thanks for that experiment because after that people are a little bit more aware of what we’re doing here.'”


Follow Brett Zongker on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DCArtBeat

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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