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On a warm September day, a teenager enters a tiny, air-conditioned white room. He’s greeted by a young woman.
Their cordial exchange — "Good morning!" and "How are you?" — sounds like it could be an appointment of some kind. But for Eric Chan, it wasn't part of his day's plan. He sits down in a chair facing Jean Huang and she raises her violin.
“This is a folk song by a Taiwanese composer,” she explains before launching into the piece she chose for their fleeting interaction.
This abbreviated concert is part of a public art project dubbed "Concert For One." Boston-based violist Rayna Yun Chou designed it to shrink the impersonal experience of performing to an audience in a concert hall to something more intimate.
“You just sit down, and the whole world is waiting outside,” she said, “and you're alone with this person and just share a minute.”
One-minute relationships drive Yun Chou’s free social experiment where one professional musician plays one minute of music for one listener.
“Both people are vulnerable, the openness really moves you,” Yun Chou told me. “It's the kind of openness we really need in the world right now.”
The curious can line up outside bright yellow shipping containers in Chin Park near the Chinatown Gate and at Harvard's Science Center Plaza in Cambridge through Sunday, Sept. 29.
Yun Chou tested her concept first in Taiwan, where she’s from, after her teacher at the New England Conservatory shared this quote:
Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak, and courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.
Yun Chou said this whole experiment comes from that concept of "us being braver."
Over 10 days, “Concert For One” is expected to yield about 5,000 performances. Celebrity Series of Boston is paying 58 musicians to perform two one-hour shifts. Yun Chou asked them to choose music they loved. She said one especially efficient violinist played for 59 people in an hour on Sunday.
Audiences who stumble on the customized shipping-containers — and muster the courage to go in — have no idea what they’ll hear. Could be violin, percussion, bass, lute, cello or countertenor with piano.
That’s what Benjamin Wenzelberg chose for his performances at the Cambridge location. He picked excerpts from some of his own compositions, including one featuring text from the Robert Louis Stevenson poem, “My Bed is a Boat.” Wenzelberg’s mom used to read it to him every night before he fell asleep.
“Art in general is so personal,” he said, “even if the audience members don't necessarily know the music, or know the poetry, or know whatever art people are creating, it can have a personal impact on them, too.”
Typically, when musicians perform for a large crowd, Yun Chou said it's impossible to see the human beings in front of them.
“Even though we go on stage we look into the dark, which really is a shame that you lose that kind of connection,” she said, “that somehow it just becomes like a show.”
But inside her cozy concert halls, decorated with plants and some sheet music on the walls, the performers and listeners are face-to-face — with just two or three feet of space between them.
"The intimacy of just seeing the musicians — and how they focus and concentrate — is probably a unique experience for many people," said Gary Dunning, president and executive director of Celebrity Series. “They may listen to recorded music, but seeing someone perform live is a much more visceral experience.”
It's safe to say each person will process this unexpected closeness in their own ways.
“I feel like it’s very intimidating,” said 16-year-old Mandy Sun while waiting in line. “I’m a little bit scared of going in there.”
Violinist Jean Huang understands why some people might be a little freaked out. She opts for a gentle approach.
“I try not to look at people directly in their eyes because I think they should be able to enjoy this moment by themselves — just them and music itself,” she told me. “But afterwards I see some people with watery eyes, or joy in their face, and it's something that we don't really get in everyday life.”
After her mini-concert, Sun says it wasn’t awkward to be in such close quarters with the violinist. It was quite the opposite.
“I could see how much she connected with the music, and her whole entire body language, it was as if she was dancing while she was playing,” Sun described.
Eric Chan was left speechless after having the chance to watch and listen to Huang close up.
“There’s a lot of things going on in my head,” he said, “like how can somebody play so well? How can that sound come out of the violin?”
Claire Ma was intrigued and wishes there were more unconventional, free music events like this around town.
“It was really more genuine, I think, because in the classical concerts they’re just up on stage and you can’t see their facial expressions very well, you can’t hear them breathing while they play, and that just adds more feeling,” she said.
Written response cards fill a wall outside the shipping container concert halls. Music educator Betty Hillmon stopped to read a few after her minute with Huang.
“You can’t get this kind of experience in Symphony Hall. I get a different experience, a very valuable one there, but not this people-to-people,” she said. “I've never seen the violinist in my life and now I feel like if I see her again I have a connection.”
In Chinatown, violinist Jean Huang is clearly touched by the connections she’s been able to make so far.
“I make people laugh, happy or sad, and I create beauty, and people say ‘Thank you’ to me — isn’t that one of the best jobs in the world?"
"Concert For One" runs through Sunday in Chinatown's Chin Park and at the Harvard Science Center plaza.
This segment aired on September 26, 2019.
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