Shots, and a musical serenade, at NYC vaccination center

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Barbara Podgurski

Pianist and CUNY music professor Barbara Podgurski plays with a string quartet for people who had received a COVID-19 vaccination and were waiting during the observation period, at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, Thursday, March 18, 2021, in New York. The convention center, which early in the pandemic served as a temporary field hospital, has been converted into a massive vaccination site. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

NEW YORK (AP) — On a recent weekday, the sounds of Vivaldi, Mozart and Bach greeted hundreds of just-inoculated New Yorkers as they entered a medical observation area at one of the city’s biggest COVID-19 vaccination sites, the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.

Hearing the music, many stopped to record videos of the five musicians in a piano and string ensemble gathered onstage, performing live.

For people on the road to immunity from the coronavirus, experiencing live music in the same space that served as a field hospital at the height of the pandemic was a fitting accompaniment on a day of hope.

For some of the musicians, it was something more.

Pianist Barbara Podgurski said her recent performances at the vaccination site were her first in public since the pandemic battered the city last spring.

“There were three months where I didn’t play the piano because I felt hopeless,” she said. “The reaction … I haven’t heard in a year. You realize how much people need music in their lives, to feel beauty and magic. It gives them hope.”

The music is part of a series of daily, two-hour midday concerts from a collaboration between the nonprofit group Sing for Hope and violinist Victoria Paterson, who started her own nonprofit, Music and Medicine.

Paterson said many of her fellow musicians have been out of work since the city’s music and performance scene shut down last spring.

The musicians who perform at the Javits Center are paid to play. There’s a tip jar, too, but contributions go to Sing for Hope so the music can continue.

“We can’t be buskers with family obligations at this stage in our careers,” Paterson said.

Podgurski, who is also a music professor at the City University of New York, said that with the city’s live entertainment scene still largely shut down, any paying job is extremely welcome. Some friends, she said, had to sell beloved instruments to pay bills.

Another recent performer at the Javits concerts was violinist Katie Kresek, concertmaster and co-orchestrator for the Tony-nominated Broadway musical “Moulin Rouge.”

Before the pandemic, her schedule was full, including performances in New Zealand and Australia. But after the pandemic hit, “within two weeks, all of my coming year bookings were canceled.”

Reflecting on playing at a vaccination center, Kresek said, “Emotionally, I felt I was contributing to this massive effort. It felt very gratifying to help out.”

The music was appreciated, too, by people who had come to get their vaccinations.

“We’ve all experienced so much loss in the last year,” said Janet Heit, who encountered the musicians after getting her shot. “It’s very emotional coming here to get vaccinated for something that wasn’t available when my father had COVID. Not only is it a great thing for the arts to have musicians, but it’s soothing and uplifting.”

Dr. Azmatullah Hussaini, a medical contractor at Javits, said he thought it helped put people nervous about their shots at ease.

“This past year has been a highly stressful environment and people’s mental health has been suffering,” he said. “But with people coming for the vaccine, this environment is filled with hope because this is a way to end the pandemic.”

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