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One-To-One Concerts Bring Listeners Back To Live Music, One At A Time

Danny Mekonnen performs for a single listener in a One-To-One Concert hosted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Ed Lefkowicz
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Danny Mekonnen performs for a single listener in a One-To-One Concert hosted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Updated May 18, 2021 at 10:14 AM ET

On a grey, drizzly Sunday afternoon, I arrived at an industrial building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I was there for something called a One-to-One Concert, but I genuinely had no idea what to expect – what kind of music I'd hear, or even where I'd hear it. After a temperature check, a masked woman approached me. Her name was Stacy, an usher employed by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the event's presenter.

As we walked through a noisy corridor, Stacy gave me one very strict instruction for the performance I was about to see: no applause.

We arrived at another building, and climbed a few flights of stairs. I entered a large room with a window revealing the Williamsburg Bridge and Manhattan skyline. There were two carpets on the concrete floor, about 10 feet apart, and two wooden chairs on them. A woman in a long black dress, with a matching black mask, held a viola. She nodded for me to sit, and then began to play, for my ears only.

The sound of the solo viola playing Bach in the lively, swirling acoustic was almost overwhelming, emotionally and musically. These One-to-One Concerts are the brainchild of a German flutist named Stephanie Winker and a couple of colleagues, scenographer Franziska Ritter and cultural mediator Christian Siegmund, who wanted to create an unusually intimate musical experience.

"In that concert space, we wanted to not talk at all," Winkler says, "to be absolutely non-verbal and have the magic of the encounter and of music speak for itself."

They tried it out in the summer of 2019, and it went well. Then came the COVID-19 crisis. "When the pandemic came, the first thing that came to our mind was that this is something that we could still do," Winkler explains, "because it's just two people, and there's a safe distance between each other."

Launched a year ago in Stuttgart, in collaboration with the Stuttgart Staatsorchester and SWR Symphonieorchesterat the airport, among other places – the One-to-One Concerts addressed a hunger for contact, caused by pandemic isolation. Since then, they've been done in Australia, Japan, India, across Europe. Now, they've reached the United States for two weekends of concerts in the Navy Yard, May 8-9 and 15-16, in collaboration with the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Silkroad Ensemble.

Wrapped in the beauty of the music and the playing, my 10 minutes flew by. The piece ended, and we were silent. I nodded to the performer. She nodded to me. We put our hands on our hearts.

Then, we broke the rules and had a chat. "My name is Mario Gotoh," the artist told me. "I play the viola, and I just played Johann Sebastian Bach's Suite No. 1 in G major for unaccompanied cello."

While she had done some teaching during the pandemic, Gotoh was eager to perform again, even if only for one listener at a time. "As someone who lives in the world of sound and music, I'm so interested in this kind of experiment," she said. "I feel like every listener comes in with a very different expectation of what it will feel like."

Over the course of the weekend, Gotoh played all over the Navy Yard to around a dozen people. "It kind of is a beautiful way to come out of the pandemic," she said, "or at least to start interacting again, because it's so introspective on both the listener and player sides."

It may have been only 10 minutes, but I'll be thinking about my One-to-One Concert with Mario Gotoh for a long time to come.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.
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