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During A Lonely New York Summer, Lincoln Center Brings Music To Essential Workers

There haven't been any live public performances at America's biggest arts center since mid-March. But New York's Lincoln Center has been hosting some free mini concerts for healthcare providers, teachers and other essential workers, featuring just one or two volunteer musicians and audiences of five, max.

The musicians are volunteers from the New York Philharmonic, one of Lincoln Center's constituent organizations. One of the performers is Kuan Cheng Lu, a Taiwanese first violinist who joined the orchestra 16 years ago. On a recent Friday evening, he chose to play some solo Bach.

Normally on a warm summer night, Lincoln Center would be bustling with people of all ages coming to enjoy outdoor concerts and dance parties. Instead, the violinist and the audience were by themselves in a quiet grove of trees, by a reflecting pool. Each performance lasts about 15 minutes, and each guest can bring up to four family members. Everyone is masked and socially distanced.

Michaela Robbins was one of those audience members. She's a nurse practitioner at Mount Sinai Hospital, and she brought along her husband, Ryan Robbins. During a normal summer, they'd go to hear the New York Philharmonic play in one of the city's parks. Hearing Lu play brought them a little closer to their pre-coronavirus life, if only for a few minutes.

"It was nice that it was so intimate that we could enjoy it, just the two of us and safely, of course," she says. "Live music is one of our favorite things to do. So it's definitely a piece of us that's been missing during this whole pandemic. This was such a treat."

Between each performance, employees from the arts center spray the audience chairs with disinfectant. After Robbins and her husband left, Laura Madera and Jeffrey Ellis-Lee filed in for the evening's final concert.

Madera is a teacher at New Design High School, on Manhattan's Lower East Side. She says that along with the music, she really appreciated just coming to sit at Lincoln Center, and reflect on what the place means to her.

"Lincoln Center is actually my favorite part of the city," she says, glancing towards the complex's empty main plaza. "It never ceases to amaze me how much a space can be sacred and feel familiar."

She came to hear Lu with Jeffrey Ellis-Lee, who teaches at the Maxine Greene High School for Imaginative Inquiry. His school is just a block away from Lincoln Center.

Ellis-Lee started tearing up while listening to Lu play.

"I literally sat here and started crying because I walk through here every day on my way back and forth to work," he says. "I haven't been back here since the thirteenth of March. So just being back here is so powerful and then hearing music, it really — I mean, I don't want to sound clichéd, but it really soothed the soul for a minute."

Ellis-Lee says that even with everyone masked, he could see the joy on Lu's face as he played. "I think that's really what got to me more emotionally," Ellis-Lee observes, "because I'm thinking about what I want to get back and do, what I'm passionate about — be in front of kids. And I don't think I'm going to do that in September. That's the painful reality."

Speaking after his performance, Lu says he felt like he needed the experience just as much as his listeners — if not more. Like Ellis-Lee, he hadn't been back to Lincoln Center since March 13th.

"That was magical," he exclaims. "I knew this was going to be amazing because I haven't been playing for four months for the general public, so I knew I needed it. Actually, this is more like a therapy for me."

In the months ahead, Lincoln Center is planning to bring similarly small-scaled concerts to hospitals and other medical facilities.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.
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