Arts & EventsJoshua Bell Chimes Out Inspirational Tale For NAC Christmas Concert

Joshua Bell Chimes Out Inspirational Tale For NAC Christmas Concert

Joshua Bell Chimes Out Inspirational Tale For NAC Christmas Concert

Welcome to Day 21 of the
25 Days of Ottawa Life
Christmas Calendar

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Photo by Shervin Lainez / Illustrations by Dusan Petricic

It is January 12, 2007 when the beautiful sounds of a single violin rise above the usual bustle and hustle inside a Washington, D.C. subway station. For 45-minutes a man in a baseball cap plays melodies that move from uplifting to mournful and back again. Only seven people would stop to listen. If they later remarked that they felt as though they were in the presence of a master musician it was because they were.

The mystery busker in the station that day was virtuoso Joshua Bell and all who passed and the few who stopped had no idea that they were part of an experiment. 

Financially, at the end of the day, Bell netted $32.17 from those who tossed a few coins into his case but the short time spent in the subway would go on to yield so much more. The resulting video would go viral. An article in The Washington Post would win a Pulitzer. A feature documentary film would chronicle the events of the day and aftermath. The brief moment in the metro found many questioning what we miss in the rush of modern society. How much beauty is never noticed as we hurry to wherever it is we hurry to each day? Others found inspiration, a desire to change, stop and smell the proverbial roses and start looking deeper into the world around them.

One of those inspired to share Bell’s story was Canadian children’s writer Kathy Stinson. While others were sharing videos and talking about the moment, she was looking beyond it through the eyes of a child. In the video of the performance you can see children attempting to stop and listen to the music but inevitably are pulled away by the hands of their parents. Stinson floats her tale out of the subway and into the city where one child cannot forget the sounds he has heard. The music has his soul soaring.

“As soon as I finished reading Gene Weingarten’s Pulitzer Prize winning story, “Pearls Before Breakfast” about an experiment conducted by the Washington Post in 2007, in which a virtuoso musician played in a subway station dressed as an ordinary street musician, I knew I had to tell the story as a child might have experienced it,” Stinson said with a similar wonder as that of her book’s character.

In the seminal Christmastime classic film It’s a Wonderful Life we learn how one life touches another and touches another and just what can change should one person not have been there to affect the others in life’s row of dominos. Just as Bell inspired Stinson so too did her story for English composer Anne Dudley. She would go onto to write a musical piece based on the book.

It all came full circle last night at the National Arts Centre when Dudley’s music of Stinson’s text and Dusan Petricic’s images from the book came to life for a Canadian premier performance in Southam Hall accentuated by The Man with the Violin himself, Joshua Bell. The results were stunning.

This time everybody stopped. This time hundreds were listening.

Bell would call the transformation of his experience into a children’s book “very sweet” going on to say that he has “three little kids of my own, so I’m certainly aware of the importance of finding inspirational stories for them. This story is one of those, and it represents music in a nice way.”

As the story was so unique, the National Arts Centre looked to recapture a bit of the moment by placing surprise buskers throughout the newly renovated building. Les bécarres vocal group could be found in the City Room, the North String Quartet in the Canal Foyer and the beats of the Baobab drumming group near the parking garage at level three. Every turn yielded new music and, sure, while some bustled by to get to the box office or find their seats early, most stopped to take in the different styles scattered about.

Though Bell’s own busking moment was the centrepiece of the evening, the night focused heavily on the festive season. The Christ Church Cathedral  Men, Boys and Girls’ choirs filled the hall with heavenly voices as the audience joined in on Christmas season staples “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, “Silent Night” and “Sleigh Ride”. Of course, the NAC Orchestra added dessert to the holiday bounty with a highlight being Vivaldi’s “Winter” from The Four Seasons which saw Bell return to the stage with his famed violin.

Conductor Alexander Shelley shared a personal connection to one of the composers on the setlist, John Rutter.

“He was a great friend of my father’s in school years, and his Christmas melodies light up the hearts of children and grownups around the world,” reflected Shelley.

As the evening came to a close it is hard to believe anybody left the NAC not feeling the spirit of the season. Also, one has to imagine, the next time any of them hear a busker sharing their music, be it on a street corner or in a subway, it’s a pretty good bet there will be a strong pull to stop, listen and, perhaps like the young boy in Stinson’s book, find what is perfectly summed up in the postscript to the text by way of Plato:

 “Music gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, an life to everything.”

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