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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Discerning good quality - Joshua Bell experiment ; Chennai Sabhas and Margazhi music season

                                          Come December, Chennai becomes busy; reverberates with music ~ the Carnatic music season.  There would be concerts everywhere in Music Academy, Narada Gana Sabha, Bharat Kalachar, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Brahma Gana sabha, Jaya TV Margazhi Mahothsavam, Vijay TV, Sruthi Laya Kendra  and more.  Carnatic music is one of the world’s oldest and most complex musical traditions, its provenance dating back nearly 4,000-years. This divine, unbroken tradition has been passed down, for generations, from teacher to student in a traditional apprentice system.  Thousands descend from all parts of the World to hear high quality music in various Sabhas. The music and moods of Margazhi are many, there is also the culinary delight.

The other day I happened to hear Anuradha Sriram singing ‘Nandalala’ at Bharathiyar Illam. People search schedules to go to concerts and listen to great singers like  Dr M Balamuralikrishna, TV Sankaranarayanan, TM Krishna, Sanjay Subramanian, Unni Krishnan, Nityashree Mahadevan, Bombay Jayashree, Sowmy, Suda Ragunatha, Aruna Sairam, Anuradha Sriram and more..  [my ignorance in Carnatic music is too blatant and I have tried to list out some names I know ~ not in any order – might have missed out some more important names – please forgive !] .  No doubt the exponents of Carnatic Music are great and treat the listeners with mellifluous music ! – a small doubt lingers – does perception plays a bigger role ?  - Does human mind tend to attach glory and greatness to some while some struggle to reach the higher levels of echelon ?????

Whilst on the topic of what decides quality, the real thing dished out or what one’s mind thinks it to be : do read this real incident that occurred miles away, in a Metro Railway Station in Jan 2007.  I read this, had doubts on its genuineness, checked and found it to be true.

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, swivelled 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,  busy pursuing what life ordained.  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, consultants and perhaps commoners too. 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?

On that day what that famous musician played were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls. Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, was asked the same question. What did he think would occur, hypothetically, if one of the world's great violinists had performed incognito before a traveling rush-hour audience of 1,000-odd people? "Let's assume," Slatkin reportedly said, "that he is not recognized and just taken for granted as a street musician . . . Still, I don't think that if he's really good, he's going to go unnoticed. His guess was that there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening.  So the expectation was that a crowd would gather.

~ and the musician who performed that day was a onetime child prodigy - Joshua Bell. Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston's stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100. Two weeks later, at the Music Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda, he would play to a standing-room-only audience so respectful of his artistry that they stifled their coughs until the silence between movements. But on that Friday in January, Joshua Bell was just another mendicant, competing for the attention of busy people on their way to work.

It was a snazzy, sequined idea -- part inspiration and part gimmick -- and it was typical of Bell, who has unapologetically embraced showmanship of an  incognito performance. The event had been described to him as a test of whether, in an incongruous context, ordinary people would recognize genius. He played with acrobatic enthusiasm, his body leaning into the music and arching on tiptoes at the high notes. The sound was nearly symphonic, carrying to all parts of the homely arcade as the pedestrian traffic filed past. Three minutes went by before something happened. Sixty-three people had already passed when, finally, there was a breakthrough of sorts. A middle-age man altered his gait for a split second, turning his head to notice that there seemed to be some guy playing music. Yes, the man kept walking, but it was something. A half-minute later, Bell got his first donation. A woman threw in a buck and scooted off. It was not until six minutes into the performance that someone actually stood against a wall, and listened. Things never got much better. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

There was never a never a crowd, not even for a second. The story may seem a little far-fetched, and many commentators have suspected that it is just another hoax. However, it is reported to be true. Joshua Bell is recognized as one of the greatest violinists and  did indeed perform incognito at the metro in an experiment organized by the Washington Post.  As an additional info, Bell played on a violin handcrafted by Antonio Stradivari in 1713 - an instrument that he bought several years ago for a reported price of $3.5 million.  For those uninformed like the ‘Yours Truly’ - Joshua David Bell is an American Grammy Award-winning violinist.  Bell made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1985, at age 17, with the St. Louis Symphony. He has since performed with many of the world's major orchestras and conductors.  Bell was awarded the Avery Fisher Prize on April 10, 2007, at Lincoln Center in New York City. The prize is given once every few years to classical instrumentalists for outstanding achievement.

Getting back to Chennai sabhas, you could find some enjoying the music; some able to do so; while some carry themselves to be around; some cellphone goes off; some loudly talk and some showing disrespect to the concert itself. 

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
21st  Dec 2012.


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