Having Your Symphony (and Eating at It Too)

Doctoral Student’s Venture Brings Classical Concerts to the Masses
by Karen Shih ’09 | photo illustration by Kelsey Marotta ’14

The gentle clink-clink of silverware during Beethoven and the crowd mingling around the orchestra—even pausing at the elbow of the conductor—makes it clear: This isn’t your grandma’s classical music concert.

That’s conducting graduate student John Devlin’s goal with Gourmet Symphony, a new series of events that combine food and music for a multisensory experience.

“A traditional classical music performance is an antisocial experience for the audience,” he says. “We want you to be able to have a great time listening to a cellist from the National Symphony Orchestra, then immediately be able to talk to and have a beer with them.”

Devlin M.M. ’11 (right), who completes his doctoral degree in May, co-founded Gourmet Symphony last spring with John Coco, former food and beverage director at the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center. While Coco worked with local restaurants to develop country and era-appropriate food pairings, Devlin recruited young musicians, including from the National and Baltimore symphony orchestras, the military service bands and local freelancers.

“There’s a lot of historical precedent for pairing food and music,” says clarinetist Evan Ross Solomon M.M. ’04, executive director of the Grammy-nominated Inscape Chamber Orchestra, who played at the premiere concert and dinner on Valentine’s Day. “If you get more senses involved, it’s more memorable.”

The sold-out event at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington drew a crowd of about 200 who enjoyed risotto balls with Rossini, beet salad with Tchaikovsky, beef cheeks and spaetzle with Beethoven, and macarons and madeleines with Ravel. Musicology Associate Professor Patrick Warfield introduced pieces with funny tales of how the audience “hurled pieces of half-chewed meat at live actors” during the opening of “The Barber of Seville” in 1816.

“I’ve never seen an orchestra live,” says D.C. resident Hugh Blackwell, who decided to finally try it because this concert seemed “more laid back.”

To Devlin’s delight, Blackwell joined the crowd that took the chance to peer over a bassoonist’s or violinist’s shoulder and experience the music differently.

This isn’t the first time Devlin has shaken things up: He started as a clarinet player, but soon realized he couldn’t tie his boundless energy to a lifetime in practice rooms. He pursued conducting after graduating from Emory, and at UMD, under Associate Professor Jim Ross’ tutelage, he’s conducted the Capital City Symphony, bringing to life Go-Go Symphony, which integrates D.C.’s funky regional style; the Youth Orchestras of Prince William; and the UMD Repertoire Orchestra. He’s also consulted with the National Symphony Orchestra on IMAG visual projection.

This spring and summer, Devlin is planning smaller-scale, restaurant- and bar-based Gourmet Symphony events, featuring quartets or smaller ensembles, followed by a second major concert in the fall.

“I love the National Symphony Orchestra, which presents works at the highest possible level,” he says, but “we provide an additional option for people who want to experience same type of music in a more intimate and, well, delicious environment.”

Gourmet Symphony will present its second major concert, called "Taste Your Music," which will benefit local charities like Miriam's Kitchen and Bread for the City, on Sept. 3.


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