It's Sunday evening at The
Dream Cafe on Routh Street, and amid the din of dishes clattering and
voices in muted conversation, a more tonal sound erupts. Patrons look up
from their vegetarian enchiladas or miso tahini concoctions to discover
the real treat of the evening. As s string quartet launches into the
spirited opening of the Divertimento in D, the bustling mood
alters, the focus shifts from miso to Mozart, and a musical balm settles
over the cafe.
String quartets performing
dinner-hour duty in restaurants is nothing new, but usually the practice
is reserved for three- and four-star retreats with linen tablecloths,
French-speaking sommeliers, and cummerbunded waiters, hardly the
scene at the unpretentious Dream Cafe. And the Gyros Quartet is a
far cry from the usual sober-faced, tuxedoed ensembles of these Eurostyled
dining venues. Casual in dress and mood, the four musicians choose the
evening's musical menu, not according to a rehearsed program, but to the
collective mood of the players. And selection is critical, since all
pieces are sight-read---that is, read without preparation or rehearsal.
There is no greater risk in music
performance than sight-reading with your audience at arm's reach. But the
players insist the risk of the unknown adds a tightrope intensity that
creates excitement, enhances spontaneity, and increases their
performance nerve and ability.
"What's also important here
is that people who come into this restaurant don't get a chance to see
what goes on behind the scenes in a quartet," says cellist Mitch
Maxwell, a native Texan who studied with renowned pedagogue Lev
Aaronson and plays with the Dallas Opera Orchestra. "We
are like four kamikaze pilots, going after the music, when it's brand-new
to us. We are rediscovering the music at the moment, and the people pick
up on it and share in the excitement and the discovery, in much the way
that musicians do."
While these Sunday evening
performances are usually seasoned with lighthearted banter, the Gyros
players dive into the classical repertory with the confidence of seasoned
veterans, and the enthusiasm of jazz players priming for an all-night jam.
And despite the no-rehearsal policy, the quality is remarkably high, and
directly related to the players' personal involvement with the music.
Smiles cross their faces at the discovery of a beautifully constructed
suspended chord or a flawlessly played 16th-note run.
The odd missed note is no
casualty---for these players, technical accuracy takes a back seat to
musicality, a bigger priority to the performers as well as to their
audience. "The audience is not necessarily made up of fantastic music
lovers who know all the pieces," says violist Norbert Gerl, a
native of Augsburg, Germany, who also plays rhythm guitar in Dallas-based
jazz ensemble Cafe
Noir. "They relate to the music in the sense of, 'Does it
move me?' And they only applaud if the performance is musical, rather than
if we are playing all the right notes at the right time.
As with most restaurants, the
noise level at The Dream Cafe will rise and fall, depending on the number
of patrons and their interest in the performance, which is also given to a
certain ebb and flow. The slightest affecting nuance or deftly turned
phrase will hush a packed house, and slow movements of Haydn or Dvorak
are usually guaranteed to subdue the most vociferous crowd. "There's
no convention here," says Gerl. "In a concert hall, people are
going to be quiet anyway, because they have to be. You can tell they
really like it, because they are only going to listen when things are
happening. It's an exciting challenge."
The Gyros Quartet has done
more than embellish the ambiance of one of Dallas' busiest cafes. It has,
through its classical Sunday evenings, helped to demystify the worlds of
chamber music and classical performance by closing the gap between
audience and performer, both physically and spiritually. The usual concert
hall demarcation line between stage and audience is erased, as cafe
customers are never discouraged from peering over the shoulders of the
players as they perform, or calling out requests.
"It's not often that they get
a chance to have classical music in an atmosphere that's not
threatening," says second violinist Gale Hess, a Dallas native
who is equally at home with a Mozart countermelody or the jazz riffs she
executes as violinist with Cafe Noir.
"It's great when parents bring
their kids in, because they can hear musicians in a relaxed atmosphere,
and they don't get intimidated by a concert situation. They hear good
musicians having fun with good music."
For Hess, Maxwell and Gerl, the
Gyros Quartet is one of many free-lance jobs that contribute substantially
to their monthly incomes, but not so for first violinist Alexandra
Shtarkman, who makes her living as the Dallas Symphony's associate
principal second violinist. Even though the rewards of a DSO musician are
many and varied, the challenges are unique as first violinist with Gyros.
The brunt of leadership and interpretive direction falls squarely on the
shoulders of the Kiev-born violinist, and the greatest compensation she
can hope for is the approving smile of her quartet colleagues. "These
people let me know, silently, when it's making sense musically, and when
it's just going through the motions," Shtarkman says of her fellow
musicians. "I don't find in many places that people are hard on you
for not being musical, except here. For them it has to be convincing, it
has to be alive."
"There's nothing worse than
thrown-together chamber music," she adds. "And it would seem
that this is thrown together, but it's not. The expectations of this group
are, 'Okay, convince me. Make something out of this piece.' "
The quartet agrees that it is
easier to maintain a high level of performance quality when sticking to
the baroque and classical repertory---Mozart, Haydn, and early Beethoven
works are preferred over late Beethoven and romantic works that are more
harmonically complex and difficult without rehearsal. Maxwell recalls a
moment when, in a fit of derring-do, the quartet attempted to read
publicly a later Beethoven work.
"We did the Beethoven Quartet, Op.59, No.1," he says. "By
the time we got to the double bar [half way through the first movement],
we were all wet with perspiration and had this wild look in our eyes.
Without a word, we all closed the music and put it back in the box."
The quartet recently celebrated
its two-year anniversary at The Dream Cafe, but actually began playing
three years ago at the now defunct Pantelli's restaurant on Lower
Greenville. (Ft.Worth associate concertmaster Loren Laing was the
group's original first violinist, followed by DSO violinist Lauren
Charbonneau, who played with the group until Shtarkman replaced her in
1989.) When Pantelli's went belly-up two years ago, Gyros began searching
for another performance home. The Dream Cafe, which had increased its
space by moving from the Knox/Henderson area to The Quadrangle, seemed a
likely location. Restaurant owners (and sister and brother tandem) Mary
and Grady O'Brien say good music is good for business. And in Dallas's
highly competitive restaurant market, an edge can only help.
"Having music is no guarantee
that you are going to do well," says Mary, who started the restaurant
about six years ago after a five-month stint in a three-star restaurant in
Paris, France. "But I definitely think it enhances business. People
talk about how serene it is, and what a nice way it is to end the week.
The people who like it are fanatical about it."
And the owners say their menu,
largely oriented toward whole food with a gourmet presentation, is
stylistically compatible with the refined musical tastes of their
clientele. "Our food is fresh and clean---mostly vegetarian,"
says Grady. "People who like classical music are overall pretty
sophisticated, and like good food and eat well."
It's a combination that seems to
work---digestible music and healthful food---as The Dream Cafe on Sunday
nights is the hot ticket in Dallas dining. Crowds often spill out onto the
ample portico, and reservations provide the only assurance of seating
after seven. To add to this musical feast, some of the most talented
musicians in town drop by to perform solo concertos backed by the
ensemble, and the variety can stagger the imagination. Once a
spoon-playing virtuoso stopped in to perform intricate rhythmic etudes on
his own vast array of finely tuned tableware. But most of the featured
soloists are traditional, and among audience favorites are guitarist Chris
Carrington, DSO clarinetist Steve Girko, and DSO associate concertmaster
As to how and why a Dallas
Symphony title player would find time and energy to perform concertos on
his evenings off, Takeda replies, "I often ask myself that question,
but it's just for fun." Once the Tokyo-born, Juilliard-educated
artist performed three Mozart violin concertos in one evening, a Herculean
effort he waves off as "typical" of his rigorous student
days. And the availability of committed musicians appeals to him. "If
you were to try to assemble four or five people together to read chamber
music, it wouldn't be that easy. Here, the quartet is already in place. I
can play with friends I like, there's no pressure, and all the players are
Talent is what has allowed Gyros
to sustain the longest restaurant residency of its kind in town, and
garner it a large following, as well as two Dallas Observer
Music Award nominations. Most importantly, the group has taken classical
music not only from the concert hall to the cafe, but also from the
background to the foreground.
"There are a lot of other
quartets that are viable music institutions, but as far as restaurant
playing goes, we are not a background quartet," says Shtarkman.
"We are a living, performing quartet, where people may show up
playing anything from spoons to the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. In this
context, everything is interesting. And you don't show up in a black tie
for one event and blue jeans for the other. The jeans will go just as
well with the Mendelssohn."