Gourmet Symphony: Eat, Drink, Instagram

Gourmet Symphony, a nonprofit co-founded by John Devlin 08C, helps listeners reimagine the classical music experience.

By Lizzie Boyer
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Have you ever been to a classical concert and felt a little bit like a phony? Maybe you felt stiff, or didn’t quite know when to clap. Or maybe you accidentally stepped on your neighbor’s foot while trying to quietly scoot past a row of bowtie and pearl clad patrons. If this is you, Gourmet Symphony may be your answer.

Gourmet Symphony, a Washington, D.C. area nonprofit group, breaks the perceived boundaries of the classical concert experience by combining what many people are looking for in a fun night out—entertainment, food, drink, and good company. Gourmet Symphony performances are totally immersive, pairing classical music selections with locally-sourced cuisine and custom beverages.

Oh, and they want you to talk. In fact, they encourage it. They consider the event a success if their guests talk to each other and to the musicians.

Emory alumnus and Gourmet Symphony co-founder John Devlin 08C tells us a little more about his organization and how they’ve flipped the classical music experience on its head to create a more accessible night out.

John Devlin

John Devlin 08C conducts the Gourmet Symphony Orchestra inside One Eight Distilling. This concert featured works by American composers Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, and Caroline Shaw, which were paired with cocktails designed by the "grain to glass" distiller.

Photography by Jati Lindsay.

Balancing legacy with innovation

 “For Gourmet Symphony, as an arts nonprofit, we care deeply about the legacy that allows us to perform music with such history and tradition surrounding it. However, our goal was also to modernize the experience of attending a symphony concert, and to create a synergy between the culinary and musical arts—something no other organization has ever focused on.

We had to find a way to grapple with honoring our traditions while creating a new pathway for people to access the art. We managed to overcome this obstacle by closely examining other successful industries that present an entertainment product to audiences (think movie theaters, restaurants, sports venues, etc.) and learned lessons big and small about what appeals most to audiences, and how great art and entertainment are consumed by 21st century audiences.”

Taste Your Music Benefit Concert

Photo from the Taste Your Music Benefit Concert in Washington, D.C.

Photography by Jati Lindsay.

Resisting sameness through sight, sound, and taste

 “Even though we are a nonprofit, we had to operate in a way that mirrored the for-profit world. We decided that we are not competing with other orchestras. Instead, we are competing against an on-demand culture of Uber Eats and Netflix. So, we designed a concert experience to stand out from our competitors in a way that would also enhance the experience beyond what could be accessed at home. In order to do this, and after careful study of peer industries, we developed the following five tenets for all of our concerts:

  1. Orchestral and Audience Positioning: The orchestra does not play on a stage. Instead, they are positioned in the middle of the audience and provide an intimate, and multi-angled audience experience.
  2. The Musicians are our Best Ambassadors: The orchestral musicians are encouraged to be themselves, express their personality, and engage with the audience. Musicians are encouraged to connect further with those they meet and to create a lasting bond that brings audience members back to our events.
  3. Music is only Part of your Evening: Gourmet Symphony programs are about 30 percent music. Meaning, there are about 50 minutes of music for a 3 hour event. (This allows for number four.)
  4. Let the People Be: We encourage the audience to be themselves and we provide them with the time to do that. They can tweet, take pictures, post on social media, and not feel as if they are disturbing a ritual.
  5. Let the People Eat: Food and drink play a major role in everything that we do. Our audience enjoys time spent around their friends and loved ones, and we provide them with a curated meal and sophisticated entertainment in a way that compliments that social experience.”
Gourmet Symphony Orchestra premiere

John Devlin 08C conducts the Gourmet Symphony Orchestra at their premiere performance.

Photography by Suhail Mir.

Education meets career

“At Emory, I was able to train as a professional musician, but also maintain a breadth of involvement in other areas and activities that would not have been possible at another school. I played in the orchestra, was given opportunities to conduct, ran on the varsity track and cross country teams, and also majored in Latin. Plus, I was involved in Greek life and in other community-building initiatives that were all part of being a liberal-arts student in the best way.

Because Emory was small enough to offer students such special opportunities, I was able to conduct orchestras while in my undergraduate years. It was big enough, however, to provide me lessons with members of the Atlanta Symphony, and to have a performing arts venue as astounding as the Schwartz Center. I owe my career to Emory's ability to tailor education to an individual student.”

Additional notes

Gourmet Symphony hosts programs throughout the year, with their next big performance coming up on Sunday, July 8 at the Smithsonian Institution. This program is inspired by the first World’s Fair held in America and its historic ties to the Smithsonian.

John Devlin 08C has also recently been appointed as the Music Director of the Hawaii Youth Symphony, and will relocate to Honolulu, HI.

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