A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Mar 4, 2014
09:56 AM
Classically Speaking

Sound Ensemble Wisconsin Gives Chamber Music the Gourmet Treatment

Sound Ensemble Wisconsin Gives Chamber Music the Gourmet Treatment


From left to right: Mary Theodore, founder/director and violinist of Sound Ensemble Wisconsin; Katrin Talbot, poet and 2013-14 SEW Artist-in-Residence; Dan Bonanno, chef of A Pig in a Fur Coat

I have to call my mom and tell her that her repeated advice decades ago finally took effect: Sunday night I learned how to take smaller bites and chew my food more slowly. Of course, I’ll probably lose her when I try to explain that it happened at A Pig in a Fur Coat this past Sunday at an event called "SEWing Taste & Sound, Bite by Byte," and it only worked because there was this string quartet playing Beethoven, and this woman reading poetry while we reflectively worked our way through a seven-course meal.

It was all part of the latest incarnation of Sound Ensemble Wisconsin's (SEW) mission to take classical music to people that don’t usually find themselves in a concert hall. Now in its second season, SEW, founded by violinist and award-winning outside the box thinker Mary Theodore, found a way to put their music where our mouths are. A shorthand way of describing the evening would be to call it less than a concert, more than a meal—and a thoroughly ingenious method of combining gourmet dining with a slice of some of the best chamber music around.

The idea was ingenious: deconstruct the “Andante cantabile” movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 5, music that consists of a theme and six variations. Preface each musical excerpt with a short poem by Katrin Talbot and follow it with a course from chef Dan Bonanno. The quartet consisted of Theodore and Mary Perkinson on violin, violist Chris Dozoryst and cellist Maggie Townsend. The “audience” consisted of nearly forty folks (which was capacity for the Willy Street establishment) who on the whole seemed like SEW’s target audience: Many of them were apparently familiar with A Pig in a Fur Coat and multiple-course gourmet meals, but not likely to have been at the Pro Arte Quartet concert the night before at Mills Hall.

Bonanno’s menu was extraordinarily creative, opening with a Katama oyster with moscato sorbet and cucumber gremolata, paired with a sparkling Zardetto Prosecco wine. Bonanno took a moment before each serving to describe the food in some detail, with a classic moment coming with the first variation. The foie gras mousse with cherry pop rocks prompted the comment, “I’m pretty sure no one here has ever had this before.”

Talbot’s short poems played nicely with musical terms a propos of the particular variations and often matched a spoken rhythm with a general tempo or mood of a particular variation. Opening with the oyster, Talbot made reference in the first poem to a pearl, and brought it full circle in the concluding poem: “…now with pearls of transformation/ clasped around my neck,/ and I finger them,/ one variation at a time…”

Each of the courses was a singular adventure, with items such as black truffle gnudi, blueberry risotto with veal sweetbreads (that had to be tasted to be believed), and Wagyu beef with shiitake mushroom and finished with bone marrow butter. Hearing Beethoven’s variations one at a time proved a new kind of journey, as they were juxtaposed with the foods, but if anyone was frustrated with a sense of musical disjointedness, we could look forward to hearing the whole movement played through as we melted into a dessert of chocolate ganache with raspberry sauce and candied hazelnuts. The staff of the restaurant provided their own kind of virtuosity by efficiently setting and clearing each course with a geniality that did not distract from the food/music experience.

The players were wonderful, and of course one of the most fun aspects was to be sitting near them as they were tucked away in a corner. Judging by nearby conversations and overheard snippets as we prepared to leave, lots of folks at the communal tables made new friends—and that includes SEW completing another chapter in its mission of making new friends for great music. Theodore and her colleagues continue to change our centuries-old concept of what it means to experience great music, and while I love the Overture Center and look forward to the new Union Theater, I can’t wait to track down a future SEW event in a place I wouldn’t have thought of listening to Beethoven.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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