Wine glass in one hand, phone in the other, Warren Wohlfahrt grinned broadly as he stood a few feet from orchestra, videotaping the musicians as they charged through the final measures of Beethoven’s Symphony No 1.
“It feels like you’re part of the music,” said Wohlfahrt, standing next to his wife, Marie. “I feel very fortunate to be here.”
The Wohlfahrts were among the almost 200 patrons who paid $125 for Valentine’s Day at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, where Gourmet Symphony performed its inaugural event: a classical concert served with a carefully planned four-course dinner.
The brainchild of John Coco and John Devlin, Gourmet Symphony is a new venture focused on bringing audiences and musicians together in a way that will make the art form less intimidating and more fun.
“It’s a new way of experiencing classical music. We want to engage all of the senses,” Coco said. “It’s an experiment, but a well-guided experiment.”
For three hours Saturday night, the audience ate and drank food, cocktails and wine created by local chefs and restaurants, including Vendetta Bocce Bar & Tavern, Smith Commons and Beuchert’s Saloon. They were served blood-orange Bellinis and rosemary and mozzarella risotto balls while the orchestra played Rossini’s Overture to “Barber of Seville.” A golden and red beet salad and a vodka martini highlighted the Russian flavor of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D.
Concertmaster and soloist Alexandra Osborne welcomed the new format.
“There’s the stigma of the concert hall, and I think this is an idea to make [the music] more attaintable,” she said. “This is about getting out into the community. I don’t think orchestras can survive if they just perform in the concert halls anymore.”
The fresh idea brought many to the Atlas who are not typical classical music fans.
“It’s cool, and there aren’t a lot of firsts in 2015,” said Dashon English, who surprised his wife, Tonya. “I was looking for something different, something cultural.”
Gourmet Symphony launched a Kickstarter campaign last fall to fund the inaugural concert. The online fundraising drive exceeded its goal, and Saturday’s crowd was at capacity. The 30 musicians donated their time, a sign of their support. Organizers hope to present future events, but no specifics have been announced.
In addition to performing segments of well-known works, the orchestra played the entire Beethoven symphony (while the audience enjoyed the main course, a very German Sauerbraten beef with herbed spaetzle). Still, most of the night was refreshingly unfamiliar. The pre-concert reception featured beats by DJ Enrico Lopez-Yanez, and wine and cocktails flowed as patrons mingled. From the podium, Devlin encouraged them to move around and to get up close to the musicians, who were arranged in the center of the room.
The crowd obliged. They stood close enough to bassists Charlie Nilles and Alex Jacobsen to read the notes on their scores. They chatted with timpanist Donnie Johns. Many held up their phones for video and candids. A few snapped selfies.
The musicians — members of the National Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and freelancers — were jazzed.
“The audience and performers were feeding off each other,” Nilles said after the performance. “We were having a lot of fun. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.”
Clarinetist Evan Ross Solomon enjoyed the energy in the room and the diversity of age and race among those present. He said that rather than being distracted by the food and drink, the audience seemed more engaged.
“By not being forced to sit and listen, they actually listened more,” he said.
They applauded during the movements of the Beethoven — a no-no in the concert hall — but the musicians merely smiled.
“The audience claps and there’s food, but the future of classical music is secured?” joked Solomon afterward. “I think musicians are all right with that.”