Music, Food, and Drink Combine in an Effortless Divertissement


Schulhoff, Telemann, Bach, Ligeti, Cornish, Mazzaferrata: Tertulia Chamber Music presents Decoda: James Austin Smith (oboe), Owen Dalby (violin), Sæunn Thorsteinsdottir (cello), David Kaplan (harpsichord). Bocca di Bacco (restaurant), New York City. 23.2.2016 (BH)

[cocktails and aperitivo]

Erwin Schulhoff: Sonata for Solo Violin, Movements III and IV (1927)
Telemann: Partita No. 2 in G Major for Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord (c. 1716)

[main course]

 J.S. Bach: Violin Sonata in E minor, BWV 1023 (1714-17)
Ligeti: Hungarian Rock for Harpsichord (1978)
Telemann: Cello Sonata in D Major TWV 41:D6 (1728-29)


Jane Antonia Cornish: Portrait for Solo Cello
Giovanni Battista Mazzaferrata: Sonata a due violini e basso continuo, Op. 5 No. 4

Not everyone likes a concert hall. In recent years, many people are looking for different approaches to classical music, from concerts in unusual spaces, to including dance, visual arts, and naturally, food and drink. Dedicated to the latter, Tertulia is a chamber music organization meeting that need, and if this concert by Decoda is representative—held at Bocca di Bacco, a handsome restaurant in New York’s Chelsea area—the group are doing it very, very well.

Tertulia’s model is really that of a salon, albeit a mobile one, with music alternating with refreshment and conversation. The mood is casual, but diners/listeners are still advised to observe “traditional concert behavior,” which essentially means, the music comes first. And always, it did. The trick is how to meld two very disparate activities: eating and focusing on music. The ambient noise of consuming food can be louder than one imagines: scraping porcelain with the sharp edge of a fork, a glass rattling with ice cubes and water, teeth crunching a cracker. Even tiny sounds can be perceived as louder against a backdrop of silence.

As people arrived to enjoy appetizers and wine, the air was suffused with pleasant conversation. After a few minutes, Decoda violinist Owen Dalby planted himself (and his iPad) in the aisle between tables, for two movements of Erwin Schulhoff’s Vioin Sonata. In this context, Schulhoff’s Bartókian angularity seemed like a rare European aperitif. (Think of those entrepreneurs, popular right now, using vintage recipes to recreate spirits from the 1920s.) Then came Telemann’s Partita No. 2 in G Major for Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord, with James Austin Smith immediately grabbing the ear with his ripe, forward tone. (Smith also serves as Tertulia’s Co-Artistic Director, along with Julia Villagra, the group’s founder.) His agile colleagues were Sæunn Thorsteinsdottir on cello, and David Kaplan, a pianist making an impressive first outing on a lovely harpsichord. (A few in the audience were examining the instrument during the breaks.)

After a roughly half-hour break for the main course, Dalby, Thorsteinsdottir, and Kaplan returned for Bach’s Violin Sonata in E minor, BWV 1023, in a spirited reading that bore an unlikely resemblance to a Celtic folk band. Kaplan threw in an entertaining harpsichord wild card, Ligeti’s Hungarian Rock, based on a chaconne (which Dalby helpfully demonstrated), and then partnered with Thorsteinsdottir in Telemann’s Cello Sonata in D Major, TWV 41:D6, perhaps the night’s most arresting performance. The cellist injected the sonata with maximum joie de vivre and immaculate intonation, and Kaplan’s chords created the odd illusion of hearing tiny cymbal crashes.

Thorsteinsdottir returned after dessert and coffee for Jane Antonia Cornish’s Portrait, an agreeable nod to Bach’s Cello Suites (with perhaps a little Glass for good measure). And the entire quartet ended the evening with an effervescent glimpse of the 17th century by Giovanni Battista Mazzaferrata (d. 1691), his Sonata for Two Violins and Basso Continuo, Op. 5, No. 4. But with only one violin on the premises, Smith did the second violin honors on oboe, and I daresay (the piece was new to me) that oboe-and-violin seemed the most natural choice in the world.

Bruce Hodges

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