From Iceland — Learning When To Clap at Tertulia x Reykjavík

Learning When To Clap at Tertulia x Reykjavík

Published February 23, 2023

Josie Gaitens
Photo by
Laimonas Dom Baranauskas/Sunday & White Studio

Music and dining bring to mind bored jazz bands playing to an equally uninterested audience — or worse, solo crooners trying to focus in a cutlery clattered hall. Still, when I first heard about Tertulia coming to Iceland, I was intrigued. Chamber music and dinner? I had to see this for myself.

Tertulia is a concept developed in New York, aiming to “place chamber music back where it belongs — in a festive, inviting atmosphere.” After many successful events across the U.S., the Icelandic edition is a first attempt to bring the project overseas. Over the course of a weekend in January, Tertulia treated Reykjavík diners to concerts big and small across various locations, from an opening night at Safnahús to coffee mornings and fledged dinners at restaurants. Boasting an impressive lineup of musicians from the U.S., Iceland and Spain, American guests mingled with locals, swapped stories and ate and drank (a lot). 

I will admit, I am not a regular classical music ‘stan’ (I believe this is the correct terminology), and often feel quite nervous in these sorts of environments. Above all else, this is born out of a deeply held fear of never quite understanding when exactly it is I’m supposed to clap. Is it now? The musicians have stopped playing and are holding their bows aloft — nope, they’ve moved straight into the next piece and now I have to pass off my premature applause as just being like, really into Bach. So it was with great interest but some trepidation that I accepted an invitation to experience Tertulia, with its promise of inclusivity and a relaxed introduction to chamber music.

Opening act

Tertulia x Reykjavík’s opening night found me rushing from the bustle of a Friday workday through the snow and slush towards an evening promising charm, music and magic — and, most importantly to me at that moment, wine. Walking into Safnahúsið delivered a whiplash-inducing change of atmosphere. I was enveloped into a world of calm and focus. An otherwise staid venue, the museum, incidentally, has consistently hosted events where food and music commingle. So it wasn’t surprising that the stately room turned out to be the perfect first taste of things to come.

A grand piano held centre stage, while chairs were arrayed around in rows three-deep. The tall arched windows, spanning the height of the room, made for an elegant setting. Local bar and natural wine ambassador Vínstúkan Tíu Sopar played host, with a delectable spread of hummus, cold cuts, crusty bread and plenty of natural wines spanning mineral-y whites to crisp oranges and smooth reds. Their signature dish, a raw Jerusalem artichoke carpaccio drenched in parsley oil and toasted almonds, held centrestage, to everyone’s delight. 

I was curious how the robust pre-concert bar vibe would work in such a ceremonial setting, but as Tertulia host and oboist James Austin Smith explains, “It’s this kind of serious listening experience in a casual environment. We think those things can exist side by side. It’s also about shared spaces — we don’t need there to be a stage, where the audience and the musician are separated.” Two performances are separated by lengthy intermissions, allowing uninterrupted enjoyment of both the music and the food. One does not supersede the other. “There’s some expectations, because we want everyone to really enjoy this experience,” James clarifies. “Chamber music should be inviting, informal and accessible.”

That is obvious to me as I take in the room and see a diversity of both audience and performing musicians I rarely get to witness. But confronted with Indian-American pianist Pallavi Mahidhara chokes my desi heart second only to listening to her play. As if my soul weren’t full already, James, as talented with words as he is with the oboe, introduces an oboe-piano duet, “Summerland” by William Grant Still, considered the “Dean of Afro-American composers.” 

Avoiding the path of least resistance

I must admit that, while I’ve heard and read many a lofty statement about music, this was one of the first times that I truly felt touched by it. I find myself going back to the why and I’m curious if inclusion is a conscious choice for Tertulia. 

James is candid about this, as we sit for a chat. “As someone responsible for musical programming, it can be incredibly quick to say, we have Beethoven, Bach, Schubert. You can’t argue with the fact that it is some of the finest music ever written.” He pauses. “But it is the path of least resistance. Because it’s been trod very lightly. So for me as a musician, it is about exhibiting curiosity and saying, what’s beyond the canon?” 

As if to answer his own question, he continues, “Where has history and society led us over hundreds of years to actually ignore, unconsciously. So there we get to understanding that women composers are plentiful, same with African-American composers. It is about finding great music that is waiting to be found. That comes purely from curiosity.”

This parallel with food, fostering a connection with your audience, be it in a morsel or a piece of music, is perhaps why music and food have long been held as two sides of the same coin of human pleasure. While Tertulia events are dinner concerts, the food itself isn’t as central to the event as the location. Logistical challenges certainly dictate where events can take place. But the challenges turn into opportunities, as witnessed at the sardines-in-a-can morning at Mikki Refur, as Icelandic-American cellist Sæunn Þorsteinsdóttir enthrals the audience. 

Sæunn is one of the main instigators of Tertulia ending up in Reykjavík. “It’s basically an excuse to come and see family and also have a concert,” she jokes.

“There are so many similarities between food and music,” she continues, more seriously. “Mostly it’s nourishment. Yes, we need food — but we need music also. We need art, we need inspiration, we need connection. Food too, has gone beyond sustenance to become about enjoyment. We’ve started to realise, especially in Covid, that creativity is a basic human need — we need to express and to be creative and to be inspired.”

Sunday morning delivers on that promise of inspiration in spades, as guests pile into Ásmundarsalur for Reykjavík Roasters coffee and pastries. I’m not necessarily accustomed to being anywhere at 10 a.m. on a January morning, let alone alert enough to process complex classical pieces. But the experience is at once meditative and illuminating — literally, as the curved ceiling windows of the exhibition space in Ásmundarsalur glow pink with the sunrise, and the musician’s notes intermingle with the bells of Hallgrímskirkja

Finally — vegetables!

Finale night at La Primavera is a fitting end to the whirlwind days of musical festivities. Long family style tables, draped with crisp white table cloths are bookended by a piano quartet on one end and a bar glowing with Ragnar Kjartansson’s Scandinavian Pain on the other. Conversations are spirited, with many of the guests now fast friends. The food demonstrates the very best of Iceland — achingly fresh cod cooked to fork tender flakiness is accompanied by the very welcome addition of vegetables — a mound of light kale, glazed carrots and perfectly cooked chunks of celeriac. Our visiting companions admit that greens have been a glaring absence in many restaurants, something they confess surprised them here in Reykjavík. 

The incredibly generous portions are understandable, as the final act of the evening is a fiery rendition of the 40-minute long Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, and the last thing we’d want is to get a little peckish halfway through. It’s noticeable that the weekend finishes on this high note with a stage full of women — Pallavi on piano and Sæunn on cello are joined by Lily Francis (violin) and Þórunn Ósk Marinósdóttir (viola). So exuberant is the piece that the piano is visibly moved out of place as Pallavi ends the 40 minute act with a flourish. 

As the restaurant erupts in applause (finally, I know when to clap!), the staff swiftly place in front of us hulking slices of their signature Basque cheesecake. At once light and airy, whilst also filling and satisfying, its humble appearance belies its complexity and technical execution — a perfect reflection of the weekend as whole.

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