Some Ravel with your dessert? On Wednesday night, the violinist Joshua Bell obliged. Diners in the atrium of the Ronald Reagan Building were treated to a head-flinging, bow-flashing, impassioned performance of Ravel’s virtuosic “Tzigane,” with Bell and the National Symphony Orchestra playing just a few feet away from their tables. For two years now, an organization called the Gourmet Symphony has been experimenting with creative pairings of food and music; Wednesday’s event, presented with the National Symphony Orchestra as part of Bell’s week-long residency there, was the highest-end dinner music anyone could experience.
The Gourmet Symphony’s concept — co-initiated by John Devlin, a cover conductor for the NSO who led the evening with flair — is to offer people a new way into classical music, by pairing it with new dishes from top-level chefs. On Wednesday, the concept was brought to the highest possible level, slightly blurring the mission: the tickets, for a private orchestral concert with Bell plus a five-course meal by the celebrity chef Mike Isabella, were around $300 apiece, a little steep for a casual audience member. To judge by appearances, the crowd largely consisted of regular NSO concertgoers; indeed, the whole evening felt quite a lot like a fundraising gala, except that the food and music were both even more distinctive.
Isabella, who has a veritable restaurant empire in the Washington region (Graffiato, Kapnos, Arroz and more), came to fame on the reality competition show “Top Chef,” and his meal had some of the fantasy and improbable ingredient combinations that called that show to mind. The result was adventurous plates with pools of unexpected flavors. Tuna tartare and foie gras mingled with pomegranate, tucked under a sheet of quince paste and flanked with slices of a sweet custard, were paired as a second course with a piece by the young composer Eric Nathan, called “Glimpse,” which sent instrumental sounds zinging with comparable zestiness. A thin bed of goat cheese supported little golden bursts of roasted beet for a salad course punctuated by the unexpected crumbly dryness of a brown-gold substance described in the lapidary menu as “coffee-cardamom soil” — more exotic than its sweet but rather bland musical pairing played by Bell, Manuel Ponce’s sweet “Estrellita.”
The juxtaposition of food and music made for a lot of sensory input to process, although the natural rhythm of dining meant that people had often partly finished eating by the time each piece started. For instance, the melting roast duck, offset with a square of savory granola and a conical tower of flaky pastry wrapped around a dark stuffing that included cherries, was largely gone by the time Devlin, visibly in his element, launched the orchestra into the first movement of the Brahms Fourth Symphony (the figurative meat of the evening). And one course consisted solely of a cocktail, a palate-cleanser to accompany a spare, elegantly dry orchestral excerpt from Respighi’s “Ancient Airs and Dances,” followed by a decidedly fruity snippet of the soundtrack to “Ladies in Lavender,” by Nigel Hess, with Bell as soloist.
The whole thing was a kind of grab bag, a wealth of different moods and sounds and flavors that didn’t all necessarily go together but conveyed a pleasurable sense of adventure and went down easily. It represented the acme of the concert-as-event idea that’s currently popular in orchestral circles, or an extreme example of the kind of dinner theater.
It would be nice if this lavish evening gave the Gourmet Symphony momentum to continue on a more regular basis — even, perhaps, with other NSO evenings in the future. Certainly it met the challenge of allowing food and music to share the spotlight without either overshadowing the other. Indeed, Bell had to work hard, after the pretty Ponce and Hess, to make the Ravel memorable enough to assert himself as the star of the evening, and balance out the plate of passion fruit curd, coconut ice cream, and squares of black sesame cake that were that piece’s tropical accompaniment for dessert.
The Joshua Bell residency at the Kennedy Center continues with a Washington Performing Arts recital on Friday night, a concert featuring him conducting the NSO on Saturday night, and a children’s concert on Sunday afternoon.