Tertulia Brings Chamber Music Back Where It Belongs and It’s a Delicious Experience
By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, May 3, 2018
For years, it has seemed that classical music has grappled with a dwindling audience, as major institutions peddle expensive season subscriptions, wondering why young people aren’t interested. But, let’s face it — somewhere along the way, the trappings of classical music became codified into an austere, church-like ritual, with a formality that places both the artists and the music, quite literally, on a pedestal, herding the audience like cattle into cramped auditoriums, where they are expected to already know arbitrary rules and customs.
And, they better have had the foresight to eat and drink and use the restroom well before curtain time, else it’s the overpriced little plastic cup of wine and triply overpriced, sad, sandwich that might be on offer at the lobby bar. (I’m channeling recent frustration when there seemed neither table nor bar at which to be seated within a 15 minute walk to Lincoln Center prior to a recent 7:30pm performance. Why is this neighborhood, with such obvious high demand, such a desert for affordable, accessible sustenance?)
It has long been a dream of mine to see classical music freed from these trappings. Yes, the New York Philharmonic and other groups have been performing occasionally in the parks, indeed, flirting with ways of bringing music “to the people.” And as great as this is, it can feel like pandering to the unwashed masses, or worse, a commercial for those fancy subscriptions. But, along the way, a new concept has emerged. Restoring classical music — and chamber music especially — to its natural environs, which is to say, a comfortable, social setting where people can enjoy each other’s company, food, libations, and a stimulating performance.
A game-changer in this arena is Tertulia, an inspired chamber music series under the leadership of co-artistic directors Julia Villagra (Tertulia’s founder) and accomplished oboist James Austin Smith. Their concept is simple: a first-rate chamber music concert in a dinner party setting. Tertulia is the series producer, but the performance roster and restaurant venue varies. They host events in New York and San Francisco (where one dinner remains there this May), the most recent and final New York City event this season brought an amicable, lively crowd to Little Park, a stylish restaurant in the Smyth Hotel in Tribeca.
The audience arrives, convivially greeting one another, and as the wine begins to flow, eventually find their way to festive communal tables as the first course appears, almost overshadowed by eager introductory conversation. Emphasizing the casual, dinner party ambiance, the food is served family-style. Top quality bread and butter, local charcuterie, kohlrabi and hazelnut salad, and mixed lettuces in zesty vinaigrette are wonderful and just filling enough before the evening turns to a congenial greeting by Villagra and Smith introducing the first “set.”
The evening’s featured ensemble, the superb Aizuri Quartet offers what Mr. Smith describes as a “pairing:” an exciting program alternating movements of Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet with two contemporary works composed for them. The Aizuri Quartet — Ariana Kim and Miho Saegusa, who alternate first and second violins, Ayane Kozasa, viola, and Karen Ouzounian, cello — regard Tertulia as one of their first appearances (in 2013) and have since traveled the world. Currently artists-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they each bring impressive technique, interpretive imagination, and their communicativeness is palpable.
They begin with the first movement of Beethoven’s fiery Quartet No. 10 in E-flat, Op. 74 (dating from the same period of political upheaval as the Fifth Symphony), nicknamed the “Harp” because of its novel use of pizzicato in the second theme. The gregarious room truly came to life as partiers transition instantly to silent, rapt audience, and the Aizuri’s urgent account of Beethoven’s masterpiece of musical tension. (Tertulia stresses that the performance is respected like a concert — wait service is suspended, noise and moving around is discouraged.)
Then, without playing the rest of the Beethoven, they juxtapose it with a work written in 2015 by Gabriella Smith entitled Carrot Revolution. Inspired by a quote from Cézanne, “The day will come when a single, freshly observed carrot will start a revolution,” the single-movement, 12 minute work is a stunner. Smith (like Beethoven in his time) employs unusual techniques, such as percussive effects (playing the body of the cello like a drum), and zipper-like sliding gestures. The audience, refreshingly varied in age and background, might at first be surprised at the novel sound coming from the formerly staid medium of the string quartet, but are quickly swept up by Smith’s indelible rhythmic concoction, a tuneful and danceable romp.
The evening progressing at just the right pace, it is time for the main course, again served on passed platters: modest portions of expertly prepared arctic char, local chicken with butternut squash, pomegranate and pepitas, crushed fingerling potatoes, and fried cauliflower in brown butter with capers. The great thing about alternating courses of the meal with musical sets is that new personal connections are made as the music inspires fresh ideas and conversations. After the plates are cleared and wine glasses refilled, the performance continues with the third and fourth movements of the Beethoven quartet, played just as much commitment and drive as the first movement. (They wisely omit the Adagio second movement this evening).
The longest musical segment of the program followed, a 2016 composition called Lift by Paul Wiancko. Playing the first and third movements (again omitting the second), the piece is another winner. Like Smith’s Carrot Revolution, this could only be the work of a twenty-first century American composer to the core. Wiancko writes technically ambitious, texturally complex music with an all-encompassing palette of influences, Post-WWII academic dogmas might serve as a means to an end, but filtered through an ear that has also known the visceral language of pop, rock, and electronic music. Adding to the appeal, the composer was in attendance to witness the enthusiastic response from the audience.
This delightful meal concludes with what might be the evening’s best culinary offering, not-too-sweet fromage blanc cheesecake, champagne sorbet, and a splendid rose-flavored ice cream that was a big hit at my table. While the next Tertulia will certainly be a completely different menu of cuisine and music, the concept is a resounding success.
For more information on upcoming events sponsored by Tertulia click here.
Cover: Aizuri Quartet at Tertulia event at Little Park: (l. to r.) Miho Saegusa (violin); Ariana Kim (violin); Karen Ouzounian (cello); Ayane Kozasa (viola); photo: Sun Kim.