Commuter Concerto Helps Writer Net Pulitzer

For his Pulitzer-prize winning feature story, Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post convinced world-class violinist Joshua Bell to play beautiful music in a Metrorail station to gauge commuters' reaction.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Well, now, one of the Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize winners, as Neda just reported: Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post magazine won the prize for feature writing for his article "Pearls Before Breakfast."

Gene Weingarten, welcome and congratulations on winning the prize.

Mr. GENE WEINGARTEN (Humor Writer, Washington Post Magazine): Thank you. Good to be here.

SIEGEL: And I'd like you to tell us about this idea you had to get Joshua Bell, the violinist, to play at a Washington Metro stop during morning rush hour.

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Well, a couple of years ago, I was coming out of the subway and I noticed there was a keyboard artist there. And I just thought he was terrific. But nobody was stopping, nobody was looking, nobody was giving him any money. And I thought, boy, you know, if Yo-Yo Ma himself were there, people would just pass him by. And so, after trying and failing to get Mr. Ma for a little bit of time, I finally decided that a violinist would be even better and managed to persuade the man I think is the best violinist in the world to do it.

SIEGEL: Joshua Bell. So he played and left nothing in the hotel room. I mean, he played quite a recital for the metro station crowd.

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Oh, it was just stunning. He played 43 minutes. He played some of the most beautiful and difficult pieces that have ever been composed. And you're right. He left nothing back in the hotel room. He gave this performance as though he might have been paid a million dollars to do it.

SIEGEL: One of my favorite moments in your article is when you write that in preparing for the event, editors at the Post Magazine had discussed how to deal with likely outcomes and the most wide - I'm quoting now, "the most widely held assumption was that there could well be a problem with crowd control." In a demographic as sophisticated as Washington, the thinking went, several people would surely recognize Bell. Not exactly what happened.

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Not at all what happened. In the 43 minutes he was there, exactly one person recognized him. And she wasn't there until the very end. Only seven people, seven people stopped for one minute or more to listen.

And he made about 32 bucks in change.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: $32.17 you said, some people did leave pennies in the...

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Oh, Yeah. People were flipping pennies at Joshua Bell.

SIEGEL: Well, what does it tell us? Have we completely crowded out the possibility to accept something beautiful happening when we're getting off the metro? Or there're just no classical music listeners out there in America? What is it?

Mr. WEINGARTEN: This is a very good question and it was really the point of the story. I don't think it means that we're unsophisticated boobs. And I don't think it means that we can't see beauty, I think it means that we're in too much of a hurry. These people were mostly going to work. They had things on their minds. And they were not about to notice something absolutely spectacular that they were passing. It's about our priorities, and there's something wrong with our priorities if we cannot be wakened out of the stupor of a morning rush hour by something that we are never likely to see again.

SIEGEL: And this doesn't everyone, there's a gentlemen you write about, John Picarello, who is quite an exception to what's going on.

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Mr. Picarello was the one person who not only stayed for a long - he stayed about 9 minutes. But he is the only one who seemed to absolutely realize the genius that he was listening to. And he - and Mr. Picarello had played violin for some of his life. And he didn't know who this man was, but he knew that he was a gifted violinist. And at the end, as he said, he sort of humbly walked up, deposited $5 and rushed away. He had, at one point, wanted to be a concert violinist. So, in a sense, he was walking away from the man he once wanted to be.

SIEGEL: Did you pioneer a new medium here, magazine performance journalism?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Yeah, that's a - I'd like to think so. The most astonishing thing here was how well the newspaper worked with its own website on this. This became one of the most viewed stories ever in the Washington Post website. And the reason was that we had secretly videotaped the whole thing and then embedded that video in the story online. It was just a beautiful way to read a story. You could get to a point in the story and hear that a certain person arrived and then you could see a video of him arriving and staying to watch, very interesting.

SIEGEL: Well, it was a great story, and congratulations on the Pulitzer for it.

Mr. WEINGARTEN: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: That's Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post.

(Soundbite of music)

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