Primary tabs

Decoda Enchants With Clarinet Quintets Between Courses at Town Hall

February 27, 2018

Tertulia Chamber Music

Especially before the twentieth century, chamber music was frequently enjoyed outside concert halls, in private salons or at intimate social gatherings. These days, Tertulia Chamber Music is reinvigorating that idea — and with exhilarating effect — by embedding world-class musical performances within dinner parties held as private events at urban restaurants. On Sunday evening at Town Hall in San Francisco, Tertulia presented Decoda, a chamber group based in New York and honored by Carnegie Hall as its first official Affiliate Ensemble. Three culinary courses and two clarinet quintets made for a scrumptious, five-course feast.

The evening began with audience members finding their assigned bar seats or tables, which were named after famous composers, and also with drinks, mingling, and hors d’oeuvres. The venue was perfect for this event: With brick walls, wooden chairs, retro lighting, and exposed seismic retrofitting, Town Hall is a chic, snug spot with a warm, welcoming ambience.

But the socializing stopped for the music. As the reverse side of the table markers explained, Tertulia maintains modern/mainstream concert-hall etiquette during the musical portions. Founder Julia Villagra reiterated the need for a distraction-free environment when she and co-director James Austin Smith introduced the first piece: David Bruce’s Gumboots (2008).  

As its name indicates, this piece was inspired by South African gumboot dancing. Workers were once chained and prohibited from talking while toiling in dark, flooded gold mines. They developed wordless communication by creating rhythms with their rubber boots and chains. Over time and beyond the mines, their communication system somehow evolved into a stylized dance that is now performed largely for entertainment and tourists. Bruce’s piece avoids overt references to this dancing. Instead, the composer was struck by its origins: a new — and fiercely vivacious — art form emerging from dire, dehumanizing conditions, like a supersized, bold blade of grass impossibly yet resiliently sprouting in a crack of oppressive concrete.         

Gumboots is in two contrasting sections. The first sounded like a Klezmer elegy. It opened with clarinetist Carol McGonnell (doubling here on bass) and violist Meena Bhasin playing a mournful melody in unison, albeit with intentional subtle differences between them — musical reminders, perhaps, that everyone grieves differently, even when grieving about the same circumstances. Eventually, Bhasin established a rhythmic ostinato to which the other strings soon contributed. Bruce warned against literal interpretations, but here I couldn’t help but think of bygone miners somehow discovering how to communicate via rhythm. In spite of the strings, McGonnell continued her painfully beautiful lament, and the section ended in the same mood as it began.

The second section consisted of five dances, each one more exuberant than the last. Both Decoda and Tertulia work to create engaging performances, and listeners indeed loved these boisterous dances. Immediately thereafter, everyone seemingly also enjoyed the main dinner course. The performers joined a table to eat, too, and audience members were encouraged to chat them up.

After dinner, there were two treats: Brahms’s Op. 115 clarinet quintet, followed by actual dessert. Cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir introduced the quintet by explaining that Brahms was inspired to come out of retirement to write it (as well as a few other pieces) upon hearing a wonderful clarinetist, Richard Mühlfeld. While this profound piece sounds quite different than Gumboots, its melancholic mood resonated with the first section of Bruce’s work.

Whereas violinist Owen Dalby played the primary part in Gumboots, he and Anna Elashvili switched positions for the Brahms. All the performers were exceptional, and Elashvili was magnificently enthralling here. Her every moment sounded both thought-through and exploding with emotion. McGonnell was also remarkable throughout, especially in the second movement that called for both poignant lyricism and intimidating technical prowess.

After four movements of Brahms and two rounds of applause, the musicians rejoined the audience for dessert. Tertulia’s flair for serving both festive upscale dining and outstanding chamber music made for a truly special night of live music. The format likely ingratiates listeners who might find traditional concert halls foreign or stodgy. (Incidentally, Bhasin invited at least one table of hip listeners through her company, Reveler, a subscription-based concierge service that provides surprise, tailored tickets for unique cultural events.) At the same time, suspending Town Hall’s friendly service and requesting silence when the music plays also appealed to purists who like to listen without disruption.

If you would like to judge for yourself — and/or if you are already fretting about finding a Mothers’ Day gift — Tertulia’s next San Francisco event is May 13.

Jessica Balik is a flutist and has a PhD in historical musicology from Stanford University.