4 p.m., Aug. 18, free, Sight + Sound Gallery, 659 Auburn Ave. NE. The artist will talk about her latest work. www.nbaf.org
There, in front of the containers of rolled oats, ricotta cheese and Paul Newman-brand raisins, the pretty young lady set up her music stand.
She clicked open the small instrument case, lifted from it a gleaming flute and positioned the instrument just above her chin.
Tara Byrdsong’s summer sundress was too sheer for an extended stint in the refrigerated foods section, but she pressed on, placing sheets of Bach’s Sonata in E major “Siciliano” and Piazzolla’s, Etude #3 on the stand.
“Ok, I’ll just start,” said Byrdsong, 29.
Then she played right there in a bustling corner of the Whole Foods Market on Ponce de Leon Avenue. Stock men hustling flattened cardboard boxes on dollies and customers pushing carts full of organic produce began to rubberneck. All around Byrdsong Saturday afternoon was a collective air of “What the heck?”
What it was was the first of a series of "Unexpected Encounters" that are part of the 2013 National Black Arts Festival. The encounters, which will include contemporary dance, spoken word and musical performances, will be performed randomly throughout the city from now until the festival's conclusion Sept. 14.
Unannounced, pop-up performances have been part of the arts for as long as art has existed, some more celebrated than others. In 2007, one of the nation’s greatest violinists, Joshua Bell, played incognito in a Washington, D.C. Metro station as an experiment for The Washington Post to see if people would pay attention to beauty whenever and wherever they encountered it. For the National Black Arts Festival, the goal for this series is similar.
“Our interactions happen so much online now that we need more face-to-face experiences,” said Margaret Kargbo, NBAF community engagement and special projects coordinator.
But the pop-ups are also an attempt to reclaim relevance in the city’s arts scene after a tumultuous last few years where the festival has dealt with layoffs of staff and substantial debt.
In the back of the grocery store on Saturday, none of those troubles seemed to matter much. Byrdsong, a music teacher at King Middle School in Grant Park, swayed and lifted to her toes as her high notes glided all the way over the beeps and bustle at the front cash registers. One of the store managers had turned off the piped-in classic rock and R&B and what was left was the lilt of the flute.
Andrea and Edison Thomaz wandered over. They wanted to find the source of the sound that had calmed down their fussy 2-year-old daughter, Stella, and 4-year-old son, Lucas.
Stella sat in the bucket of the cart, mouth agape, staring at Byrdsong. Her brother seemed more preoccupied with his ice cream cone, but he was quiet nonetheless.
“This is great,” said Andrea Thomaz, referring both to Byrdsong and her affect on Thomaz’s children.
Jessica Jones, of Atlanta, circled back to the orange juice near the impromptu concert twice, and not for the juice.
“As I listened, it made me want to cry for a minute and not in a bad way,” Jones said. “It made me feel like I do when I meditate.”
Every now and again, Byrdsong glanced up to see who was paying attention and who wasn’t. Several weren’t. At least once, someone almost mowed her down with a shopping cart while making a beeline to a nearby display of chardonnay on sale. But more than a few people stopped, and by the end of the 45-minute performance some, like Meghan Egger of Decatur and her 11-year-old son Jack, had stuck around for nearly the entire performance.
“This is just lovely,” Meghan said. “It feels like a treat.”
For her encore, Byrdsong broke from her spot near the yogurt and headed over to the hot foods bar, soaring as she went.