Even at this accelerated pace, though, the fiddler's movements remain fluid and graceful; he seems so apart from his audience -- unseen, unheard, otherworldly -- that you find yourself thinking that he's not really there. A ghost.
Only then do you see it: He is the one who is real. They are the ghosts.
IF A GREAT MUSICIAN PLAYS GREAT MUSIC BUT NO ONE HEARS . . . WAS HE REALLY ANY GOOD?
It's an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the koan about the tree in the forest. Plato weighed in on it, and philosophers for two millennia afterward: What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact (Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer (Immanuel Kant)?
We'll go with Kant, because he's obviously right, and because he brings us pretty directly to Joshua Bell, sitting there in a hotel restaurant, picking at his breakfast, wryly trying to figure out what the hell had just happened back there at the Metro.
"At the beginning," Bell says, "I was just concentrating on playing the music. I wasn't really watching what was happening around me . . ."
Playing the violin looks all-consuming, mentally and physically, but Bell says that for him the mechanics of it are partly second nature, cemented by practice and muscle memory: It's like a juggler, he says, who can keep those balls in play while interacting with a crowd. What he's mostly thinking about as he plays, Bell says, is capturing emotion as a narrative: "When you play a violin piece, you are a storyteller, and you're telling a story."
With "Chaconne," the opening is filled with a building sense of awe. That kept him busy for a while. Eventually, though, he began to steal a sidelong glance.
"It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . ."
The word doesn't come easily.
". . . ignoring me."
Bell is laughing. It's at himself.
"At a music hall, I'll get upset if someone coughs or if someone's cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change." This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.
Before he began, Bell hadn't known what to expect. What he does know is that, for some reason, he was nervous.
"It wasn't exactly stage fright, but there were butterflies," he says. "I was stressing a little."
Bell has played, literally, before crowned heads of Europe. Why the anxiety at the Washington Metro?
"When you play for ticket-holders," Bell explains, "you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I'm already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don't like me? What if they resent my presence . . ."
He was, in short, art without a frame. Which, it turns out, may have a lot to do with what happened -- or, more precisely, what didn't happen -- on January 12.
MARK LEITHAUSER HAS HELD IN HIS HANDS MORE GREAT WORKS OF ART THAN ANY KING OR POPE OR MEDICI EVER DID. A senior curator at the National Gallery, he oversees the framing of the paintings. Leithauser thinks he has some idea of what happened at that Metro station.
"Let's say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It's a $5 million painting. And it's one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: 'Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.'"
Leithauser's point is that we shouldn't be too ready to label the Metro passersby unsophisticated boobs. Context matters.
Kant said the same thing. He took beauty seriously: In his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, Kant argued that one's ability to appreciate beauty is related to one's ability to make moral judgments. But there was a caveat. Paul Guyer of the University of Pennsylvania, one of America's most prominent Kantian scholars, says the 18th-century German philosopher felt that to properly appreciate beauty, the viewing conditions must be optimal.
"Optimal," Guyer said, "doesn't mean heading to work, focusing on your report to the boss, maybe your shoes don't fit right."
So, if Kant had been at the Metro watching as Joshua Bell play to a thousand unimpressed passersby?
"He would have inferred about them," Guyer said, "absolutely nothing."
And that's that.