Beethoven 250: Wine and Art, a “multi-sensory artistic experience” presented online on June 18 by In the Realm of the Senses, succeeded as a musical performance—and as performance art.
While watching live music on a computer screen just cannot replicate the enveloping beauty of live music in an orchestra hall or amphitheater, it certainly was a lovely way to an evening’s hour-plus, as our city continued to creep toward whatever the new normal is.
Classical music lovers can never be fully compensated for the losses wrought by the COVID-19 crisis, with companies having to end their seasons abruptly, or cancel them altogether. This piece is being written on a Wednesday, a day on which thousands of people would be preparing to descend on the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park to watch an outdoor concert of the Grant Park Music Festival.
Big companies have provided some consolation with video presentations of great performances, such as a transcendent Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on Easter Sunday and a superb Metropolitan Opera staging of Wagner’s four-opera The Ring Cycle. Many smaller companies, such as In the Realm of the Senses, have leaned on innovation to grab the attentions of home-bound viewers.
Thus, the June 18 concert, broadcast from a sparely decorated room at the Zhou B Art Center in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, featured four short musical pieces, two composed by Ludwig van Beethoven, whose birth 250 years ago was being celebrated. The art in the title was provided by Sergio Gomez, an abstract artist who drew a striking portrait of Beethoven in the time it took for the master’s String Quartet Opus 95 “Serioso” to be performed.
And the wine in the title? That was part of the optional gastronomic experience that invited viewers to add DIY food and wine pairings to enhance the experience. (More about that later.)
Violinist Jeff Yang is the founder and anchor of In the Realm of the Senses. Classically trained, he performs frequently with companies such as the Grant Park Orchestra and Chicago Philharmonic, but he has range: He is the violin soloist and recorder player for the classical-rock fusion band Mannheim Steamroller.
Yang performed on each of the pieces in the June 18 event in various combinations with three other veteran Chicago performers: violinist Matthias Tacke, formerly with the Vermeer Quartet and now a music professor at Northern Illinois University; Dominic Johnson, a viola player who co-founded the New Millennium Orchestra and also does music production for the Comedy Central show “Drunk History”; and cellist Nick Photinos, a founder of and four-time Grammy winner with Eighth Blackbird.
The show opened with a violin duo by Chevalier de St. Georges, an 18th century African-French composer known in his day as the “Black Mozart,” which Yang said was included to signify a commitment to racial justice. Beethoven first appeared in the Eyeglasses Duet, the title apparently something of an inside joke for Beethoven. The numerical sequence continued with a string trio by Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnányi, a piece with dynamic sections of march and scherzo.
All the musicians came together on an excellent performance of the Beethoven quartet. But with no offense to the players (or Beethoven), it was impossible to not be transfixed by the visual magic performed by Gomez. Drawing swiftly in freehand on a large canvas situated behind and in the center of the quartet, Gomez brought the image of an intense, glowering composer to life in a fantasy of dark and pastel colors. It was almost a mashup of portraiture and athletics.
It was an easy listening concert, though I would never compare the aural quality on my MacBook Air with the sound system in Symphony Center. The concert was presented on the Zoom platform and there were a few sound hiccups, but nothing that detracted from enjoyment of the event.
Now about those food/wine pairings? Here are the recommendations provided to ticket buyers:
Beethoven Eyeglass Duo:
Gruyere cheese on cracker with dates/dried fig
Schloss Gobelburg gruner veltliner
Domaine Wachau gruner veltliner
FX Pichler gruner veltliner
Bratwurst on hard roll with sauerkraut, brown mustard
Egri Bikaver “Bulls Blood” from Hungary
Castle Rock Willamette Valley pinot noir
Peter Zemmer Rollhutt pinot noir
Beethoven String Quartet Op.95:
Henkell Brut from Mainz, Germany
Heil Eifel Auslese riesling 2016
Kunstler Hochheimer Kirchenstuck riesling 2014
As an avid cook and wine aficionado, I regret that my busy day job prevented me from participating in the culinary accompaniment. But I’ll keep these recommendations handy, for a day will come when I’ll want to listen to these pieces again.
One thing about a classical concert at home: You can listen to a concert with a brat in one hand and a glass of wine in the other without drawing a stiff reprimand from an usher.
Screencapture photos by Bob Benenson.