On Aug. 27, the Santa Fe Symphony resumed performing for the first time since Feb. 16, and to a sold-out house. The outdoor venue, at the Museum Hill Café, had a seating capacity of one, which matched the size of the orchestra. In fact, these were 10 mini-performances by violinist Gabriela da Silva Fogo, each lasting about 10 minutes, for different individual patrons.
The event launched SFS 1:1, the orchestra’s series of concerts for one that will run through Oct. 2. In addition to Fogo, performers during its first week included principal oboe Elaine Heltman, principal bassoon Stefanie Przybylska at the Children’s Museum’s community garden, and principal harp Anne Eisfeller on a rooftop plaza at Thornburg Investments. (The Museum Hill Café offers an optional wine tasting that seems to intensify the emotional experience for many and turn it into a party opportunity for a few; the other venues are libation free.)
The coronavirus-inspired concept was originally developed by Stephanie Winker, a Juilliard-trained German flutist, and was launched this spring by members of two orchestras in Stuttgart, Germany. A key part of its success is non-musical: Each performance begins with a period of silent, eye-to-eye contact between player and audience member, who is seated at an appropriate social distance, with the instrumentalist deciding what to play based on their nonverbal contact.
The experience was surprising. It evoked a response that was almost entirely visceral and emotional, as if you were a performing partner with the instrumentalist, rather than in a consumer-provider relationship. The feeling of giddiness wasn’t uncommon after the performance.
“We are craving contact at this point; we have all been staring at screens for hours and hours,” Winker told The New York Times in June. “You forget that staring into people’s eyes for a long time is incredibly powerful.”
The one-to-one performances may be the inverse of a traditional orchestra in terms of scale, but the attendees of early performances were virtually unanimous in reporting that they had a surprisingly big emotional impact. “It was transcendent,” says Cory Kratz, who was there in part to honor her late husband on his birthday. “There is nothing, nothing like live musical performance.”
Pamela Schuyler says, “I was filled with happy and sad memories, and the presence of heartfelt communication. Music touches the mind, heart, and soul, a reminder that life is good.” Beforehand, attendee John Scully believed the experience would be “odd.” Afterward, he called it “wonderful” and signed up for three more performances.
For oboist Elaine Heltman, who played at the Children’s Museum, it felt like a role reversal. “Usually when I play I feel like I’m giving a gift to the audience,” she said. “Here I was a recipient, especially with a woman who stood up before I played the final piece and said, ‘That was perfect. It was exactly what I needed right now.’ ”
Of course, a project that reaches one audience member at a time will never have a big impact, fiscally or in terms of numbers served, but Executive Director Daniel Crupi said the symphony had two other goals in mind for the project. “First, we wanted to find ways to continue paying our musicians, who are getting their standard rates for a rehearsal and a performance. We’re a ‘per-service’ orchestra, so our members get paid only when they play. I also felt it was really important for us to maintain a presence in Santa Fe [by] using musicians for live performance, which is our mission, and I knew we could execute the 1:1 concept no matter what coronavirus restrictions were in place.”
The opportunity to participate was offered to all 54 tenured musicians, and 14 will perform by the time the project winds down. Some are principals, who frequently play solos, but others are section players who don’t often have the same chance in the
Fogo was the first to sign up. “I was desperate to play for a live audience after so many months and feel productive again.”
For Heltman, participation was triggered by the unique method of determining repertory. “I was intrigued by the idea of choosing what to play based on a person’s vibe. In most cases, I just knew what to play almost immediately. The music chose them, and I just happened to play it.”
For the symphony, working with different partners and a variety of venues was almost as important as generating pay for the musicians. “Increasing the number and scope of our collaborations was identified as a high priority by the planning group that met during the search process that led to my hiring,” Crupi says. “It was one of the first things I spent a lot of time on as soon as I started as executive director in March 2019.
“In a time of crisis, I feel like we all must be working together towards the same goals as a community. It’s a tremendous amount of work to be performing in so many different venues, with totally different logistics to be managed, but we feel that this kind of artistic engagement is critical right now.” After the 1:1 project ends, the symphony plans to move its performances online for the rest of the calendar year, but it continues with the twin themes of outdoor venues and community partners, including Ghost Ranch and the Santa Fe Botanical Garden. ◀