Musicians playing through the lockdown, to one listener at a time
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Musicians playing through the lockdown, to one listener at a time
The setting for a concert for one in Stuttgart, Germany, May 26, 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has forced the cancellation of most cultural events, including concerts, but two German orchestras found an intensely personal way to play on. Laetitia Vancon/The New York Times.

by Patrick Kingsley and Laetitia Vancon

STUTTGART (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Atop a hill beside a vineyard, a woman sat down a few yards from a stranger holding a double bass. She sat in silence for a minute, trying to hold his gaze.

It was hard looking him in the eye. She’d spent weeks staring at screens, largely in isolation. Human contact felt intense, strange. After 30 or 40 seconds, she glanced away.

But then the musician raised his bow. The air began to hum with the deep chords of the instrument. She began to relax.

He had picked a version of an English folk song — an adaptation of “Greensleeves.” She realized what it was, and its origins. In her reverie, it felt like an homage to her time in England, where she had spent part of her life.

She suddenly felt overwhelmed.

During two months of lockdown, her amateur choir practices had been canceled. A concert she had planned to see had been postponed. But here on a hill above Stuttgart, a virtuoso musician was playing a piece — and only Claudia Brusdeylins, 55, a 5 publicist for a renewable energy research group, could hear it.

“I just felt recognized,” Brusdeylins said later.

To circumvent the restrictions enforced on society by the pandemic, cultural institutions have mostly turned to the internet. Museums have held online panels, theaters have streamed plays on their websites, and orchestras have uploaded their back catalogs.

Others held drive-in events. Actors in the Czech Republic performed to cars in a parking lot, as did musicians and DJs in Germany. And as the lockdown eases, a few are beginning to hold concerts in concert halls again, with large gaps between members of the audience.

But two state-funded orchestras in Stuttgart — the Stuttgart State Orchestra and the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra — are trying to do something more personal. Something that will not keep people separated by windshields, or sitting in a mostly empty auditorium, or staring at their computer screens. Something that might stir some raw emotion.

The challenge was to achieve this without risking infection.

The solution is an ongoing series of one-on-one concerts — in which one orchestra member plays for one audience member, without ever speaking to them.

After applying to attend online, concertgoers are then allocated a 10-minute slot in one of 27 sites around the city. They include Stuttgart’s deserted airport, an art gallery, the garden of a private villa — and the terrace beside the vineyard, where Brusdeylins heard the rendition of “Greensleeves.”

The audience of one arrives with no knowledge about the music that awaits him or her, or the performer or instrument that will provide it. The person simply is asked to sit down opposite the musician, and to lock eyes with the player for 60 seconds.

Then the musician plays for 10 minutes — sometimes squeezing in two or three pieces. They tend to arrive having rehearsed a handful of potential pieces, but change the final selection for each performance. Brusdeylins was subsequently treated to part of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1.

Finally, the concertgoer stands up and leaves without applauding, usually wordlessly. There is no ticket fee, but attendees can donate instead to a fund for freelance musicians left without an income by the crisis.

The idea of a one-on-one concert was previewed last summer, at another German music festival, the Volkenroda Summer Concerts. The organizers of that festival had themselves been inspired by a performance art project by Marina Abramovic, the Serbian American conceptual artist known for sitting opposite spectators at her exhibitions, and silently holding their gaze.

After the lockdown began, the Volkenroda’s organizers suggested to the Stuttgart orchestras that the format was a perfect way of keeping active during the lockdown, without resorting to the internet.

The result has been an intense series of more than 1,100 encounters — first in Stuttgart, and now in five other German cities. And what began as a clever adaptation to coronavirus rules has since become something more profound — a means of establishing human connection, agency and meaning at a time when such concepts have been harder to foster.

People often emerge nearly punch-drunk from the concerts, dazed after experiencing such a direct interaction with an artist, and with art.

At the vineyard, one woman left her concert feeling as if she knew Manuel Schattel, the double-bassist. Breaking with the rules of the format, she had spontaneously thanked him — and found herself addressing him as “du,” in German an informal version of “you,” rather than the more formal version, “sie.”

It is common for people to feel deluged by emotion, said Stephanie Winker, a Juilliard-trained flutist who created the format, and who remains one of the performers.

“We are craving contact at this point. We have all been staring at screens for hours and hours,” Winker said. “You forget that staring into people’s eyes for a long time is incredibly powerful.”

It is often an overwhelming experience for the musicians, too.

For Schattel, it has been a revelation to finally play for an audience, after weeks of playing at home only for himself.

“You need an audience to really express what you feel,” he said after performing for Brusdeylins. “This made me feel free again — like the world is turning” once more.

And it is moving to see a stranger for the first time, he said, to make that direct eye contact, and to decide what to play based on those initial impressions of who that person is.

And then to play for them, and them alone.

When Schattel played for Brusdeylins, he did not actually tailor his set in homage to her life story. He had not known of her time in England. But she was right to feel that he had consciously chosen “Greensleeves.”

He could immediately tell she was nervous, he remembered later. And “Greensleeves,” he felt, was the perfect melody to put her at her ease.

“I thought this would lift her up and take her by the hand,” Schattel said. “This would invite her to come with me.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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