SF Symphony’s 1:1 Concerts Offer a Lifeline While Live Music is on Pause

San Francisco Symphony's first violinist Victor Romansevich performs outside of Davis Symphony Hall on Aug. 13, 2020.  (Nastia Voynovskaya)

On my way across the Bay Bridge, I had butterflies in my stomach. Since I’ve barely been anywhere more exciting than the grocery store for most of 2020, the prospect of seeing an up-close performance by a world-class musician—not on Instagram or Zoom!—felt like blood returning to my veins.

I was one of the raffle winners of the San Francisco Symphony’s 1:1 Concerts, private, socially-distanced performances with one musician and up to two audience members from the same household. The orchestra piloted the series with donors and volunteers last month, and is now holding them for free once a week through a public lottery.

In the before-times, the image of a masked violinist playing for my boyfriend and I, 30 feet away and in masks, would have looked like a scene from a dystopian sci-fi. But with society’s current state of artistic deprivation, it’s a lifeline. Not to mention, an opportunity. In this pared-down version of concert-going is a chance to experience classical music in a casual, unusually personal setting—the opposite of the pomp and circumstance that typically goes along with a trip to Davies Symphony Hall.

The butterflies kept fluttering as a symphony employee took us up to the concert hall’s courtyard and showed us to our seats, which were under a tent to guard from the midday sun. Waiting there was violinist and violist Victor Romasevich. He was wearing a T-shirt instead of a tuxedo, and right away I picked up on his Russian accent. We exchanged pleasantries in our shared native language—a moment of connection that would’ve been unlikely, if not impossible, before the strange circumstance of a private concert during a pandemic.

As Romasevich began to play the first notes of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor on viola, it was like being nourished after a long period of starvation. I didn’t mind when someone drove by with speakers pumping lowrider oldies at top volume, or when motorcycles roared past. The dark, brooding melody persisted with the accompaniment of COVID-era San Francisco and all of its social stratification, a strangely poetic moment amid the depressing mess that is 2020.

Sponsored

Afterwards, I asked Romasevich how the pandemic has been affecting him creatively. He seemed to miss this experience as much as I did. “The energy of a live audience is different than playing in a recording studio, but having the two of you, for example, there is a reflection,” he said. “Live music is very special because it has the effect of something happening that instant, that very second. ... If the performance is good, it evokes emotions, it evokes reactions from the audience, and you feel it as the musician. It creates that kind of interaction and incredible exchange, and that makes us more creative and makes us more inspired. So we have to adjust.”

This kind of communion, where strangers gathered to feel something in unison, used to be something I took for granted. Deprivation has made it clear that moments of in-person connection facilitated by art are precious.

Suddenly, someone yelling on the street interrupted Romasevich’s thoughts. “Something like this will complement the music,” he joked. “Playing with the sirens and the fire engines and all that, it’s a special experience. You learn to play with all kinds of backgrounds.”

Like Romasevich said, we all have to adjust. But his concert reminded me that a world without this kind of energy exchange isn’t one that I want to get used to.

The San Francisco Symphony’s 1:1 Concerts are happening weekly. Details here. Victor Romasevich performs in a livestreamed concert celebrating composers Iosif and Arshak Andriasov on Aug. 23. Details here