A sensory overload in an Upper East Side mansion.
Adriane Greif singing for Metropolis Ensemble's Brownstone, Photo by Carly Gaebe.
In a limestone building uptown, overlooking Central Park, musicians play classical instruments in rooms of ornate dark wood, surrounded by marble busts of poets and many leather-bound books. Guests in black tie drink chamomile-infused gin martinis and take small nibbles of whipped bone marrow croquettes. The freshly shucked oysters never seem to run out. It’s either a high society gala or the set of an Eyes Wide Shut reboot, but either way, we stand out like hipsters in, well, an uptown mansion. In fact, we are—but hipsters are also running the show.
Brownstone, a concert presented by the Metropolis Ensemble, might look reserved for an unattainable upper class, but the scene is anything but stuffy. Light show projections, classical-electro mashups, and finger foods inspired by the sounds and space, make this event more like a Brooklyn warehouse art party than a high society gathering. The series, this time held at the Irish Cultural Society on 80th and Fifth avenue, is a collaboration between three rebels against their respective classical fields: Ricardo Romaneiro, a Juilliard trained composer with a club-kid mentality, daring young chef Jonah Reider, and Andrew Cyr, the conductor of Metropolis Ensemble and artistic director of the series, who has created avant-garde works with the likes of Deerhoof and Questlove.
The three artists have come together to produce an immersive experience of the senses, starting with Sound Bites, a catered auditory maze combining Romaneiro’s music with Reider’s menu. The sound comes from every room in the house, with classical musicians playing in hallways and stairways, begging you to follow the music as you explore the space. The food, different dishes in every room, mirror the notes. “The process of composing and cooking are almost identical,” Romaneiro explains. My turmeric selzer tingles like the orchestral progressions around us as we speak about the fluidity of collaborating with Reider. The two artists have a similar energy about them, amped and expressive, unafraid to push the boundaries of their conservative art forms. “We both want to create stimulating environments,” says Reider. “It’s complementary; we’re not stepping on each other’s toes.”
The food plays with the sound and decor of each room but don’t overwhelm each other. In the library, oysters dressed with champagne gelée and grapefruit-peppercorn granita are as cold and smooth as the bassoon’s low, guttural vibrations. The octopus, dressed with an olive-hazelnut tapenade, is as crisp and earthy as the string quartet in the living room, playing under oil paintings of the Irish countryside. Both Reider and Romaneiro were as inspired by the mansion as they were by each other’s work. “The space is so mobile,” says the chef, “it encourages movement. We aren’t just having a concert with musicians on stage, so things need to move, and the food does too. It’s chaotic but it’s fun.”
“With food you first eat with your eyes, then nose, then mouth. So presentation plays a very important role,“ Romaneiro agrees. “I use live visual projections that react to the music and are synced with lighting design cues to pair the atmosphere in whatever colors/palettes fits the mood.” He’s working with John Houle, the man behind the visuals, on a virtual reality experience based on the sounds and sights of the night. “The visuals are a fixed thing belonging to the architecture of the space. I want to introduce VR after the show so that the audience can have a different, more intimate relationship to the piece. The way we recorded the piece, engineered by Leo Leite, is spatial, so that in the VR you will also get the panning effect of the sounds as you move.”
Upstairs we go for another taste of scallops dressed with pink lemon, ramp oil, and black salt (an acidic punch to the bubbling harp down the hall, lit in a pink glow), quickly realizing the guests and musicians have all moved downstairs. The carved wood staircase is packed with attendees smart enough to get an early seat to the main event. I wonder if I would be in this position had I let all my senses guide me, rather than just follow my mouth to the free food. Suddenly a small door next to the stairway opens up, fluorescent light flooding into the dark mansion: a secret staircase to the servants' quarters. I follow some of Romaneiro’s collaborators, who had also been distracted by the scallops, inside, into complete blackness.
Down a thin and rickety spiral staircase, the bassoon’s thick purr vibrates through the walls. It’s all senses now. Without eyes, the sounds become physical. Vibrations travel through the walls and into our fumbling bodies, unbalanced from the cocktails, as we make our way down. Here we are, trapped in the secret spac,e smelling of cardamom and sweat and old wood; living behind the walls as well-dressed patrons see the sounds we can only feel. Maybe this is Eyes Wide Shut.
Another burst of artificial light: We’ve find the doorway and suddenly, the kitchen. We spill out, embarrassed and confused as Rieder and his staff fill endless bowls with perfect spheres of ice cream (cardamom, of course). The kitchen leads us to the library where a bartender is on her phone and a few oysters sit on melting ice. Behind the ornate wooden door, we hear the symphony, a woman’s operatic voice beginning to croon. We gather around a small crack in the door and watch the rest of the concert from behind the woodwinds’ staging area. The air is thick with the breath of the musicians waiting to chime in with soprano Adriane Greif for Romaneiro’s final piece, "Coarse Air." With sounds from the kitchen in harmony with the music, the glitchy light projections dance across seated audience members' backs like hallucinogenic trails. From this uncommon vantage point, craning our necks to try to catch the final crescendo, it’s easy to see what the collaborators of Brownstone wanted to do differently: here, it’s not about what you can see, it’s about what you can sense.
Catch an improvisational electro-acoustic performance by Ricardo Romaneiro at National Sawdust on June 4th, tickets here.