Friday, July 10, 2009

Talent, Success, and Other Such Matters

Last night we went with friends to the Hollywood Bowl to see Joshua Bell perform the Bruch Violin Concerto. I've seen Bell before--a stunning performer, once you get past the fact that he looks a bit too much like actor Hugh Grant. (Not that I have anything against Hugh Grant, mind you. But Grant just doesn't seem like a violin virtuoso.)

Primitive Man Discovers Fire

But first, a digression. We were dragging along a wheeled cooler filled with champagne on ice and a pile of finger food. About halfway up to the Bowl, it felt as though I were hauling a travois raher than a wheeled cart. On inspection, we saw that one of the wheels wasn't turning.

A closer look revealed that the axle pin of one of the wheels had become detached from one side, and was protruding from the wheelbase. I reached down and pushed on it with my thumb, thinking I could push it back into place, and gave a quick yelp of pain. The friction of being dragged had made the axle searingly hot--fully hot enough to burn my thumb. For those who believe I am overstating the case, here is a picture of my thumb taken just before I typed this:

Despite continued application of ice, I ended up with quite a blister. If you've ever doubted that fire could be produced by friction alone, ala the Boy Scouts, I'm here to testify that it can. Ouch.

But, As I Was Saying...

Joshua Bell gave an extraordinary performance (as always), and the seven thousand fans on their feet clapping persuaded him to come back for a a solo encore, which was even more impressive than the Bruch.

But after the rapturous reception of his performance, I couldn't help thinking of the experiment Mr. Bell participated in back in 2007, when he set himself up in a Washington, DC subway as a busker and played for 45 minutes. Hardly anyone stopped to watch--though he did collect $32.17, which isn't bad for a busker. On the other hand, those of us watching him last night paid $96 each.

I'm morally certain that if I walked past Joshua Bell playing in a subway, or anywhere else, that I'd stop dead in my tracks. (And cry out, "Look! Isn't that Hugh Grant?"). But perhaps in the event I wouldn't notice; perhaps I'd mutter to myself, hey, this guy's pretty good, must have some training, and toss a dollar in his hat.

As anyone who has ever seen their typescript set in print and slapped between two covers can testify, presentation matters, and, to a great extent, the platform determines how much attnetion you command.

Apparently even in the case of certified genuises.


Janet said...

I saw that video. I like to think I would have stopped, but if I'd been in a terrible hurry, I probably wouldn't have.

Best wishes to your thumb... ;o)

Alis said...

How true... it's all about setting up expectations, isn't it - you go to a professional performance and you're primed to find it more amazing than if you'd gone to hear the same performer in a church hall with no posters up.
I think it's the same with big-name writers - we're primed to find their work good, though occasionally people will put their head up above the parapet and point out that if they had submitted the same work it would have been rejected with 'seen too much of this' or some such comment.
Once you've established your talent (and I don't for a second underestimate the difficulty of doing that) it's all about branding, innit?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet.

Thumb is now back to normal.

I also like to believe I would have stopped, transfixed...but maybe not. Subways by their nature are full of people rushing...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Yeah, reminds me of how the Dadaists discovered that you could make anything seem like art if you put a frame around it.

What it makes clear to me is how much collaboration there is in art--between performer and audience, between artist and viewer, and, most intimate of all, between writer and reader.