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  • Writer's pictureIlona Oltuski

Tertulia – a la carte music experience served with prix fixe dinner

Building on the abundance of fine dining opportunities available in New York City and San Francisco, the bi-coastal Tertulia concert series brings chamber music into various localities. Ranging from Baroque to contemporary classical, the programs are offered during each course’s prep time, making for shorter music segments that are served in-between appetizers, main course, and dessert.

The abbreviated duration of typically two 20 - 30 minute performance portions (with the first one often a bit shorter than the second one) in between prolonged dinner “intermissions” changes up the usual concert experience quite a bit. While it would be unheard of to play just one concerto movement in a concert hall, Tertulia considers that certain etiquettes will fall away in pursuing a format with so much else to offer.

Faced with the dilemma of finding non-musician friends to accompany her to the concerts of her colleagues she wanted to support, Tertulia founder Julia Villagra was looking for an alternative way to present the music she loved and cared for. Since everyone she knew, including the performers, enjoyed going out for dinner, she decided to bring the concert to the afterparty.

Rather than springing the intensity of a full-length concert on audiences, who had so many different choices of how they could spend their evening, she thought of loosening the fitted regimen and instead adding all the factors that would make the concert a more inviting and socially responsive experience.

Especially for newcomers to classical music, this would make for an excellent opportunity to get acquainted with the music, its great performers, and the richness of the repertoire. In addition, making the evening into an all-around experience, with shorter, easier-to-digest music selections, could awaken patrons’ curiosity and enhance their interest in learning more about how great classical music is, ultimately motivating them to dig deeper.

One thing that remains paramount for Tertulia is the intentness of how its audiences are listening. The concept prescribes certain elements to support the vivid and stimulating experience that is sitting close to the performers, experts in their field, afford. Seeing them interact, move, and breathe as they bring the music to life in a raw, unfiltered way, conditions must still offer good acoustics and undisturbed attention, respecting the musicians’ need to perform at their best. With no stage putting them on a pedestal seen from afar, it may not be for every performer. But many artists thrive on this intimacy of the performance setup, enabling them to connect with their audiences up close and personal.

Photo credit: Ilona Oltuski, taken during the last NYC Tertulia at Lafayette Grand Café & Bakery

“Audiences are giving the musicians the utmost respect during the performance sections because they are not waiting to go anywhere else and have ample time to interact, sharing a meal across the table. When the music starts, they are wrapped in the full experience; there is no coughing or rattling with programs, as they keep their attention span throughout. Perhaps it works so great because this is how chamber music was always meant to be experienced,” says Tertulia’s artistic director, James Austin Smith, an accomplished oboist, performing in many renowned ensembles, like Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Co-Principal Oboist of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Cygnus, and Decoda. He also is a member of the Oboe and Chamber Music faculties of Stony Brook University and the Manhattan School of Music. Growing up in Connecticut, he and Julia performed in the same Youth Orchestra. Julia started as a music undergrad but has since followed her entrepreneurial instincts when she founded Tertulia in 2011. Staying connected through many of their mutual musician friends, James started to help with presenting and programming for Tertulia’s evenings in 2014.

Artists: Rebecca Anderson, violin /Jennifer Frautschi, violin/ Melissa White, violin/ Natalie Loughran, viola/ Paul Wiancko, cello/ Pedja Muzijevic, harpsichord/Tony Manzo, bass/ at Tertulia NYC Lafayette December 2022

The demanding proposition of re-inventing Tartulia each time requires scouting new venues regularly. “When I step into a potential venue, I start by looking for reasons why we should not do it there, that right away narrows the choices of localities,” explains James. “If it seems possible, I go and absorb the room, see what it would be like spending three hours there, and find out if there is an interest in working with us. This is often the hardest part, as it is more work for a restaurant to provide what we need. Many do not see the value we can add or don’t like music. But what has worked for us greatly during the past ten years is that we built an audience that can fill the venue. Depending on the neighborhood, on a Sunday or Monday night, when restaurants don’t typically book as much traffic, this can also be an interesting offer for them. In San Francisco, we found a venue we work with regularly, which was like finding a home. But New Yorker audiences are likelier to come for the entire experience, trying new restaurants and live through the music in a different ambiance,” he says.

Whether audiences are seated at larger communal tables, as a couple, with the respective groups they arrived with, or at the bar, each setup, each space offers a different take on that experience. To support the social interaction between participants, Tertulia aims to match their audience members’ expectations starting with the planning of the seating arrangements. “Mutual interests connect people more easily. We have a strong tech contingency within our audience, for example, that is a segway to merge audiences’ interaction,” explains James, adding: “We always aim to get to know our audience members and try to find out what worked well for them and what did not.”

Most importantly, the programming is also built around that experience that unites audiences and musicians in partaking in something special. Known to offer great variety with eclectic programs that feature an extensive range of excellent musicians, the curating process is freed by not adhering to any specific style or era.

“The timing is an interesting parameter for the duration of programs,” mentions James, which often inspires us to program unusual or challenging repertoire if it offers the proper context and scale. In addition, the visceral atmosphere sets people up for a truly artistic experience that opens them up to be more in touch with how they connect emotionally.

For that, I don’t feel that the music selections and the choice of the restaurant need to inform each other on a thematic level. So, for example, an Italian chef won’t need to start preparing a Bouillabaisse because French music happens to be performed. But the atmosphere of the space can inform how pieces transpire to the audience, as much as the musicians that come together for the performance,” and he explains that all the elements connect in an all-encompassing momentum, elevating each of its parts.

“The dichotomy of the model, which provides the casual atmosphere of an extended period of a social dinner party, supported by some remarks about the music about to be heard, somehow prepares people more for the captivating renditions and lets them recover and process the music differently. Most of our audience would not be described as “experienced listeners” of classical music. I see my role as a host making this an interesting segway into welcoming them into it. We keep it real and connect on a human level; hearing from musicians passionate about their work brings people a step closer to the art form – and it might bring them back. Conversely, it’s a lot about relationships with my many colleagues. Sometimes I hear a performance, and I say:” We need to hear that at Tertulia.”

This past month, Tertulia organized an even more all-encompassing experience for the first time with a concert tour to Iceland, encompassing the travel experience and an internationally planned presentation by locals, joined by Tertulia artists and fan audiences. With around four yearly Tertulias intended for each of their chosen US cities – the meaning is derived from the Spanish term describing a social gathering with literary or artistic overtones – it remains to be seen if adding more international events will become a reasonable or lucrative option. In the meantime, New Yorker fans eagerly await Tertulia’s upcoming choice of venue, where they will have an opportunity to hear the following program.



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