Gene Weingarten followed up his piece about Joshua Bell busking in the Washington Metro with an online chat in which he remarked that this story got "the largest and most global response of anything I have ever written" (thanks in part to the classical music blogosphere). He received more than 1,000 e-mails, many from people who declared themselves in tears at the end of the article, and even I got a few missives from readers who got there via The Rest is Noise.
Some interactors resented the obvious conclusion to the outpouring of indifference that Bell received: many of us go through our lives blinkered, hurried and ironclad, unwilling to let a chance encounter with something beautiful cause a hiccup in our routines. Others wondered whether the results would have been different in another city, another station, at another time of day. I don't know about that, but I'm sure they would have been different in a place where people had some reasonable expectation of an artistic experience: The Mall in Washington, D.C., Washington Square in New York, the square in front of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Thoth has found such a site in Central Park, where people habitually move at a stroll rather than a scurry.
At an American Symphony Orchestra League conference in Los Angeles last year, I suggested that orchestras should take opportunities to get out of their womb-like halls, occupy a shuttered Main Street Woolworth's, create storefront chamber music and rehearsal space, colonize a local pedestrian mall with impromptu outdoor performances. Esa-Pekka Salonen disagreed; he had once led an ensemble on a train platform for some reason, and been startled to see that the Bell phenomenon applies on a large scale, too: crowds rushing for the 7:14 don't even notice the presence of an orchestra, let alone stop and listen. So clearly, it's counterproductive to bring music where people don't expect and don't want it to be. The answer is not to retreat to the concert hall and erect a barrier of prices; it's to take advantage of those public spaces that American urban planners have fitfully and not always competently supplied (that's a whole other discussion) and find ways to consecrate them temporarily to music.