DC is no stranger to “high art.” Some of the nation’s (and world’s) most renowned collections are housed here. International performers of the highest caliber compete to bill at revered venues, and while museums and theaters make real effort to offer opportunities for the general public to engage (there are probably more ways to enjoy free art in DC than anywhere else), there still often lingers a sense of art as inaccessible. Conductor John Devlin and his Gourmet Symphony are turning the tables on that tired trope – literally.
Gourmet Symphony takes the classical music performance out of the concert hall and brings it tableside, where patrons can consume orchestral music chosen specifically to complement uniquely themed culinary and beverage pairings unlike either a traditional music or dining experience. Each performance is crafted around a theme – a past event with a theme of “woodworking,” for example, examined the effect of barrel aging on whiskey, and on the different woods used to make instruments. During the upcoming season of “Earth, Wind and Fire,” one show will pair a woodwind ensemble with an exploration of carbonation in different beverages.
“As a musician, and especially as a conductor, my job is to curate a menu for every concert the same way a chef would,” says Devlin, who launched Gourmet Symphony nearly two years ago.
In this case, however, the menu is composed of both food and music, with both art forms given equal weight. Devlin says that while the traditional mode of experiencing classical music has a place – it is his chosen profession, after all – he thinks “it’s remarkable that there’s this very versatile art form that we have and there’s almost only one way to consume it – sitting and staring straight ahead without being able to talk to anyone. There’s too much music at classical music concerts.”
So Devlin and his colleagues, including founding board member and former Kennedy Center Beverage Director John Coco, set out to “strip down any kind of preconceived notion” of how people should connect with the classics.
The result has been a series of performances that not only engages a different demographic in terms of audience – notably targeting millennials like Devlin himself – but bends the rules for musicians, too. Most significantly, the orchestra never plays on a stage and never sits higher than the audience.
“That separation,” Devlin says, “is one of the main things that make people feel uncomfortable – so we take away that barrier.”
Musicians that play in the Gourmet Symphony eat, drink and talk with the audience throughout the performance, sitting at tables alongside diners with whom they are encouraged to correspond with once the show has ended – a smart move for marketing of future shows. All in all, there is about 30 minutes of music throughout the two-hour events, leaving plenty of time to “enjoy what we love about restaurants, which is sitting and eating and drinking, and talking about experiences with people that we came to the event with,” Devlin says.
And while a young and energetic staff helps, the relatively recent blossoming of DC’s once blasé “steak power lunch” restaurant scene is certainly another reason Gourmet Symphony has flourished in the city. Among colleagues like Aaron Silverman (Rose’s Luxury) and Tom Cunanan (Bad Saint), chefs like Beuchert’s Saloon’s Andrew Markert, who sits on the advisory board of Gourmet Symphony, represent the new class of restaurateurs bringing out-of-the-box creative concepts to DC’s culinary arts.
“I’ve always been into music,” Markert says. “Music has always influenced me in my cooking.”
While Markert jokes that if he had his way, Pearl Jam would be playing 24/7 in the kitchen, he is “very excited about the concept and idea of pairing classical music with a great food experience.”
For this month’s season opener of the symphony’s “Saloon Series,” Markert has designed an entire menu around a classic British hunt, inspired by some of his time living and learning abroad. The sold-out “Game Night” on September 14 will feature the music of hunting horns set to a multicourse meal of dishes including guinea hen rouladen, wild boar and grilled venison leg.
At around $100 for the chef’s pairing and the performance, the Gourmet Symphony events are more reasonable than tickets to most concert hall shows or even dining out for two. But that price tag would still be exclusionary to many of the city’s residents whom Devlin and his team hope to draw. That’s why the organization has partnered with local nonprofits working with DC’s underserved and at-risk communities, including So Others Might Eat (SOME), Miriam’s Kitchen and Bread for the City, to make classical music – and fine dining – an experience truly accessible to all.
A grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities made it possible for Gourmet Symphony to launch its charity wing, “Taste Your Music.”
“We pitched the idea that we could go out to soup kitchens and food banks throughout the DC area and bring impactful experiences based on our concept to those most in need.”
In addition to the benefits and concerts for the residents and staff of the charities that Gourmet Symphony has already hosted, starting in October, the organization will hold a monthly event series at SOME wherein food professionals will teach residents life cooking skills, combined with musical experiences.
As a two-year-old nonprofit startup, Gourmet Symphony faces the usual challenges of funding, potential burnout (the staff still all have additional full-time jobs), marketing and sustainability. But if it can surpass the growing pains, the organization could succeed, both at reviving an interest in classical music, and adding another layer to DC’s creative zeitgeist.
Learn more about upcoming Gourmet Symphony events, including Volksfest DC at Shaw’s Tavern on October 18, at www.gourmetsymphony.org.