By: Edna Landau

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Have you ever heard of the word tertulia? I hadn’t, until January 15 when I was perusing the registration list for the imminent Chamber Music America conference in New York, with the goal of setting up some last minute meetings with people I didn’t know or hadn’t seen in a long while. That is when I learned of Julia Villagra, Founder and Artistic Director of a chamber music series by that name. An e-mail to Julia elicited a prompt response and we were set to meet a few days later.

My research in advance of the meeting revealed that tertulia is the Spanish word for a social gathering with literary or artistic overtones, which is similar to a salon in that the atmosphere is informal. From Tertulia’s website I further learned that “Tertulia is a regular chamber music series in New York City that transforms restaurants into concert venues for an evening.  Paired with a prix fixe menu and drinks, guests listen attentively to world-class chamber music performed in a relaxed, informal and welcoming setting.” Fortunately, there was a Tertulia planned for five days later which I made arrangements to attend, thanks to Julia’s gracious help. The event at Brio Flatiron proved to be everything promised on Tertulia’s website. It was closed to the public that evening for this private event, as is the case with all Tertulias. The attractive three course dinner was interspersed with three substantial chamber music works, beautifully played by the excellent Attacca Quartet: Six selections from John’s Book of Alleged Dances (1994) by John Adams; Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major, Op. 18 #1, and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s String Quartet in Eb Major (1834). My husband and I were seated at the Britten table and, thanks to the ample opportunity to chat during dinner, made some new friends that night. The sold out audience of about 70, which ranged in age from about 23-40, could not have been more attentive. Attractively produced programs included substantial and informative program notes, a bio of the quartet and personal notes regarding the program they were performing, and some basic etiquette guidelines (also on the home page of Tertulia’s website). Examples were: arrive on time, respect the performance (shhh), show your love (two clapping hands), and mingle. The waiters suspended all food and drink service during performances, though I did see several standing around and listening attentively. Everyone in attendance, from those who paid $25 per ticket to sit at the bar and forego dinner, to those who paid $80-$100 a ticket, listened with rapt attention to the musicians’ enlightening and personal introductory remarks, as well as to the performances. Although the etiquette basics in the program stipulated that there are no rules about clapping at Tertulia, and if you feel inspired to clap after a movement, you shouldn’t hesitate to do so, the appreciative audience reserved their enthusiasm for the end of each work. After the final quartet, a good number of audience members stayed around to mingle and meet the musicians, even though they had been there already for three hours. I viewed the evening as a complete success.

What is the story behind this successful initiative and what can other young entrepreneurs learn from it? Julia Villagra was born into a musical family and studied violin as a child. Her parents hosted musical soirees and she had opportunities to play chamber music with her pianist and cellist siblings. She later switched to voice and received a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Performance from Boston University (2006). After graduation, she decided not to pursue a career in music because the financial outlook was too uncertain. After a brief time in retail, she saw a posting on Craig’s List for a technical recruiter and she got the job. Quick to learn and attracted by the skills and intelligence of her co-workers, she advanced in her field to the point where, thanks to a cold call she intrepidly made in 2008, she gained the position of Head of Recruiting and HR at Hudson River Trading LLC, an automated trading and technology firm. When, after a few years, she started to miss attending concerts, she decided to reconnect with old friends via Facebook and to go to their concerts. She wanted to invite new friends to join her but was depressed  by the typically small audiences at those events and the less than inviting venues in which they took place. Aware of a growing trend for concerts to be presented in untraditional spaces, she decided to write a business plan for her own new initiative. It would seem to me that from that point on, she did everything right. Here are some pointers I have derived from her story:

Start with an innovative idea, backed by considerable passion. It was Julia’s father who actually came up with the name Tertulia. She loved it instantly and it helped her feel ownership of her concept. It also helped her explain it to others. Working a full-time job, it can only be her passion that simultaneously allows her to find the time to oversee all aspects of running eight concerts a year and maintaining a classy image for Tertulia.

Do your homework.  Julia studied what others were doing and figured out what she could uniquely bring to the table (upscale venues, fine dining, fees for the performers).  Having never written a business plan, she studied a variety of them on the Internet and made her own template. The business plan kept her focused on her objectives. When it seemed realistic that investors would support her project , she also organized a successful Kickstarter campaign, supported by an attractive video from her first concert. Later, she structured Tertulia as a 501(c)3 through pro bono help from a law firm, enabling her donors to receive tax deductions.

Be willing to invest your own money. Today, Tertulia’s contributed revenues, as well as money from ticket sales, allow Julia to pay an honorarium to the musicians and to bring in an excellent quality piano for select performances. However, she covered her start-up costs largely from her own savings.

Maintain an attractive and vibrant identity. Julia undertook the cost of creating a professional looking logo for Tertulia. Before officially launching her project, she had business cards, stationery, and professional looking flyers in place. Her vibrant personality and effervescence, joined with her meticulous attention to detail, have undoubtedly played a role in attracting new fans to her cause.

Work tirelessly to get the word out. Julia created a website for Tertulia even before the first concert took place. She always understood the importance of social media in growing her organization and, in fact, one of her biggest breaks came via Twitter. The New York Times had published an Invitation to Dialogue: Saving Classical Music. She wrote a letter to the Times about her series but it was never published. Six months later, she posted the letter on her Tertulia blog and tweeted about it. A minute or two later, Steve Smith of the Times retweeted it. An hour later, he asked for information about tickets to her next Tertulia, which resulted in a highly complimentary article in the Times.

Never lose sight of your ultimate goal. Julia has written on her blog: “ At tertulias, music whets the artistic and intellectual appetite and wine, food and conversation put people at ease. What keeps both experienced and new listeners coming back, over and over, is that the music is paramount.” Julia has excellent musical taste and also has the good sense to allow musicians to pick their collaborators, if they desire to do so.  She works with them on the programs, ensuring the most stimulating presentation possible for her audience.

I asked Julia about her long-term goals and she said she would love to expand the Tertulia concept to other cities. She also would be exceedingly gratified to someday have her own venue where high level culinary and musical experiences would co-exist, and which would be a staple of chamber music in New York City. I have no doubt that these goals are well within her reach.

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© Edna Landau 2014

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