Can one of the nation's great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour?

By Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 8, 2007
HE EMERGED FROM THE METRO AT THE L'ENFANT PLAZA STATION AND POSITIONED HIMSELF AGAINST A WALL BESIDE A TRASH BASKET. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L'Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What's the moral mathematics of the moment?

On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made.  His performance
was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and
priorities -- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal
setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?

The musician did not play popular tunes whose familiarity alone might have drawn interest.
That was not the test. These were masterpieces that have endured for centuries
on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals
and concert halls.

The acoustics proved surprisingly kind. Though the arcade is of utilitarian design, a buffer
between the Metro escalator and the outdoors, it somehow caught the sound and
bounced it back round and resonant. The violin is an instrument that is said to
be much like the human voice, and in this musician's masterly hands, it sobbed
and laughed and sang -- ecstatic, sorrowful, importuning, adoring, flirtatious,
castigating, playful, romancing, merry, triumphal, sumptuous.

So, what do you think happened?

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Like nature beckoning upon us. Only a few are willing to open their eyes to discover and appreciate its beauty and splendour in its natural order.


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