Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Virgil Thomson's Roast Lamb: An Experiment in Gastro-Musicology

One thing I have not made clear enough in my reviews: I am a foodie. The only thing that rivals my love for a good, cheap concert is a good, cheap meal. Not shockingly, it's much easier to find the former around NYC -- I'm pretty sure if I waltzed into Katz's Deli and asked for the "student discount" I'd get a laugh and a proverbial kick in the shins (then again, it's hard to do anything at Katz's without getting made fun of, that's kind of their brand).

Now that I live in an apartment, I've finally been able to get back into cooking regularly. I've had some interesting experiments in my tiny one-person kitchenette. A moderately successful crispy pork belly. Beef rendang with a paste I bought at a hole-in-the-wall Indonesian market in Forest Hills -- the paste had so much chili that it kinda gassed out my apartment even with all the windows open. A five-ingredient butter-soy-garlic braised enoki mushroom dish that I now swear by.

My friend Amanda is my cooking buddy. We grocery shop together, we exchange recipes, sometimes we even eat together. A couple months ago, Amanda texted me a picture from a ratty spiral-bound cookbook and said, "Project?"

The recipe was from Amanda's old copy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Cookbook (out of print, but available on Amazon) from the time when her father played trumpet with the CSO. A compilation of exceedingly 1970s-esque recipes, the book includes favorites from musicians, conductors, spouses, and composers.

I'm not sure which I love more: the fact that he wishes us luck at the end,
or the fact that he signs with "Warmly everbest"

Our project: American composer Virgil Thomson's (1896-1989) recipe for roast leg of lamb. Thomson's musical oeuvre has largely been forgotten; he's remembered most fondly as a father figure for composers of the next generation, most notably Leonard Bernstein and Ned Rorem. According to academics, the trio was "united as much by their shared homosexuality as by their similar compositional sensibilities." His most famous works include three operas (two with libretti by Gertrude Stein, one of which the NY Phil is doing later this year) and a handful of Ken Burns-style PBS film scores.

His lamb recipe looked edible. Huge leg of lamb. Cut all the fat off. Rub with crushed garlic and rosemary (no salt, he's very clear about that). 550°F oven. 8.5 minutes per pound. Easy enough, I suppose.

So Amanda and I checked our GCals and penciled in a date around finals -- what better way to celebrate the holidays (and procrastinate on my final papers) than with a huge hunk of Roast Beast™? (please don't sue me Dr. Seuss Trust please please please)

I showed up to Amanda's house around 6:45 on a Monday night. We poured ourselves glasses of wine (I had written most of a 12-page paper that day, I damn well deserved it) and set to work trimming the six-pound leg of lamb of all of its fat. Yes, all of it, or else, Virgil assured us, we'd set our oven on fire. Nice.

I suppose I should say now that we committed ourselves to following Thomson's recipe exactly, so help us god. This is important, because we made some steps that we knew would produce wonky results. But we did it for science!

We crushed some rosemary and garlic and rubbed it on. Just like we were supposed to. And then we stuck it in the oven. And, predictably, the garlic and rosemary torched almost immediately and set off the smoke alarm for the first time that night. We dismantled the smoke detector after that, but that was definitely not the last time the smoke alarm should have gone off.

smoke alarm: BEEP
me: *goes to fan smoke alarm*
Amanda: "Do you want me to take a video of this for your blog?"
Me: "I mean....I guess so?"
Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts: *playing in the background, if you listen closely*

The original plan was to make an entire Chicago Symphony dinner, but we looked through the book and decided that everything looked too....well, too 1970s. Lay off the gelatin, guys.

After smoking out the apartment three times (though admittedly those last two were thanks to our complete and utter incompetence at making Yorkshire pudding), we pulled the lamb out of the oven. It looked nice enough. We carved it according to Virgil's instructions (ALWAYS perpendicular to the bone -- he was very particular) and sat down to eat. We ended up with:
  • Virgil's lamb, which was juicy but had a prominent essence of burnt garlic and that distinct 1970s gray color. Oh, and why didn't they ever salt anything in the 1970s? Literally, rub the outside with salt instead of garlic and rosemary and we wouldn't have had a problem with flavor or garlic charcoal.
  • Sautéed Brussels sprouts with bacon. Mmmm, bacon.
  • Arugula "salad" with olive oil and kosher salt, that's it (Virgil's instructions were actually watercress, but arugula is so much better).
  • Amanda's mother's delicious almond torte recipe
Overall not too bad. But Amanda and I looked at each other after enduring three smoke-outs and more than our fair share of other hilarity and said, "We are obviously better cooks than Virgil Thomson. Let's just use our own recipe next time."

An evening of musicology at its most amusing, if you ask me.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Some Thoughts on the 2020 Grammys

Grammy Award 2002.jpg

The nominees for the 62nd Grammy Awards came out a few weeks ago. I was excited. Like, really excited. But of course, as you guys have probably gathered by now, I'm easily excitable.

I sent the link to all of my top contacts. Responses included:

"Oh sick, I'll take a look tomorrow when I'm not stoned out of my mind!"

"Go away, I have a [math words that I don't understand] problem set due in two hours."

"It's 3am, go to sleep dammit!"

Can you guess which one was my mother?

Naturally, I had thoughts -- it's almost a reflex at this point. So, I figured that as long as I have this repository for my unsolicited opinions, I may as well throw these on the pile. So here are a few of my thoughts on the 2020 classical Grammy nominees.

Image result for andrew norman sustain

A Big Year for New Music

The Grammys have a category for the best new classical composition of the year -- they've awarded it yearly since 1985 -- so there's always been some representation for new music. But overwhelmingly, contemporary classical music is starting to take over the other categories:
  • The LA Phil (woot!) is up for an award for their performance of Andrew Norman's new composition Sustain (also up for best new composition) alongside recordings of Bruckner, Copland, and Stravinsky.
  • One of the Best Opera Recording nominees is the world premiere recording of George Benjamin's Lessons in Love & Violence with the original Royal Opera House cast, and they have a good chance of winning, too.
  • Four of the five nominees for Best Choral Performance are albums containing world premiere recordings -- and, in my eyes, the fifth album (Duruflé's complete choral works with the Houston Chamber Choir) simply is not going to win.
  • Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance is also peppered with world premieres -- a little more on that down below.
  • Best Classical Instrumental Solo -- you guessed it -- has three premiere recordings.
The times, they are a-changing. Good thing the Recording Academy recognizes this, too -- fair to say the more conservative members are slowly phasing out and being replaced with credible young voices.

Image result for shaw orange

Caroline Shaw. Yes, Again.

The Grammys have proven erratic in the past, but there is one decision upon which I will happily bet money. I think that the Attacca Quartet's May 2019 Caroline Shaw album, entitled Orange, is going to win Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble performance. Never have I seen a classical album that has gone so mainstream as soon as it hit the shelves. I have yet to see a bad review of the album -- it's definitely on my top 10 list for albums of the year, and probably up there on my albums of the decade too.

This is not to detract from the other four nominees, three of which are also world premiere recordings. But I think the buzz that surrounded Orange's release is a good indicator that it's headed straight for Grammy territory -- the Academy loves buzz.

Image result for joyce didonato songplay
For all the things I don't love about this album, I have to admit
that top-hat-and-ruffles is DEFINITELY Joyce's look


I know I'm usually loath to give a negative review. I mean, I'm young. I can't afford to make lifelong enemies. But sometimes, something comes my way that just annoys me so much that I have to say something.

Hey, I'm an anti-establishment 20 year old, so if I'm going to rail on someone it better be someone good. So I'm going to tell you what I really thought of Joyce DiDonato's most recent album, Songplay.

On the off-chance Joyce is reading this (although I'm not going to @ her on Twitter for obvious reasons) I just want to say that I absolutely adore her. Her 2018 live-from-Wigmore recital with the Brentano Quartet was one of the many soundtracks of my past summer of blogging. I will stand by her work forever.

Except for this album.

The thing is, there are so many people right now who are experimenting at the intersection of jazz and early music, and they are succeeding very well. Baroque ensemble L'Arpeggiata has released jazz fusion takes on Monteverdi, Purcell, and Handel, all to great acclaim. Harpsichordist Jean Rondeau will often play the Bach Goldberg Variations at 8pm followed by an improvised jazz piano set at 10:30.

Putting a swing beat behind the 24 Italian Art Songs and Arias doesn't cut it. At least not today.

I'm a quite surprised and a little bit taken aback that this was nominated. It feels like it was perhaps put on the list out of obligation. But think of all the other phenomenal vocal albums from the past year that didn't make the cut. Christian Gerhaher's latest Schumann albums. Iestyn Davies's album of new works for voice and viol consort. For fuck's sake, Lise Davidsen's debut album, which propelled her to the international stage and got her not one, but two features in the New York Times leading up to her Met Premiere.

Yeah, Songplay is kind of a waste of Grammy spot, if you ask me.

My Predictions

If I'm going to talk the talk, I figure I should make some predictions for winners in each category.

First, I'm going to say that I rarely agree with the Grammy committee's decisions. They are often reluctant to choose albums from smaller labels -- it all feels a little bit biased from the get-go. That being said, I'll be choosing based on my perception of both the performances at hand and the Grammy committee's selection process. So here goes nothing:

Best Orchestral Performance: Manfred Honeck and Pittsburgh have a great Grammy track record, so it wouldn't surprise me if their Bruckner 9 won. That being said, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's nominated album got fabulous press, so that could happen too. Of course, I'm rooting for Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla's Weinberg symphonies album, both because it's fabulous album and because the award has never gone to a female-conducted ensemble and it's about f*cking time. Oh, and LA Phil <3.

Best Opera Performance: God, I swear if Lohengrin wins I'm going to kill someone. Especially considering that Christian Thielemann is an expert in Wagner's music partially because he practices his values...ugh. I think the aforementioned George Benjamin recording has a good chance -- Barbara Hannigan is tremendous and beat Joyce against all odds for Best Solo Vocal a couple years ago, so the Grammy committee obviously likes her. But the Academy are suckers for a good Wozzeck...

Best Choral Performance: I would be astonished if the award didn't go to The Crossing for the third year in a row. The Philadelphia-based new music-focused choir is pushing the boundaries of what is and is not singable, and they deserve every ounce of every award they get. Oh, and they're nominated in the category not once, but twice.

Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble: see above.

Best Classical Instrumental Solo: Yuja Wang's The Berlin Recital, I think. She's simply beastly. Nothing more to say except that Nicola Benedetti has a chance for her premiere of Wynton Marsalis's new violin concerto (as much as I'm mad at Wynton Marsalis for his views on jazz fusion and free jazz, but that's another story for another day). Would love to see a win for Tessa Lark (I saw her this summer after my big project was over, she was amazing), but I don't think the Academy is going to spring for such a small record label.

Best Classical Solo Vocal Album: I think Matthias Goerne's Schumann album has it in the bag -- it's a ridiculously strong album among many others that are not as remarkable (@Songplay). Would love to see a win for L'Arpeggiata, but I honestly didn't think that their album from last year was as remarkable as some of the others they've done in the past.

Best Classical Compendium: I seriously have no idea. I'm rooting for Harold Meltzer because he's a family friend of sorts (we were reading chamber music together at Bennington and then we discovered that my mother was his first date...small world), but I also don't love Paul Appleby, who was the featured singer on the Meltzer compendium. The Saariaho album has a good chance, I think.

Best Contemporary Classical Composition: I know I said I'd bet money on Caroline Shaw for best chamber album, but I'm not as sure for the composition category, mainly due to Julia Wolfe's Fire In My Mouth, which made a huge splash when it premiered at the NY Phil last winter. I was lucky enough to see it, and it was indeed tremendous. That's where I'm placing my bets.

God, I have a mouth on me. But hey, I'm a 20-something aspiring critic, it's basically my job to have strong and immovable opinions, no?

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Review: Les Arts Florissants at The Met Cloisters

WHO: Les Arts Florissants; Paul Agnew, director
WHAT: GESUALDO Tribulationem et dolorem; Responses for Maundy Thursday; Miserere mei Deus (Psalm 50)
WHERE: Fuentidueña Chapel at The Met Cloisters
WHEN: October 20, 2019 at 1:00pm (yes, I know I'm late)

I think I'm starting to get the hang of these concerts at The Cloisters. I usually don't get lost on my way from the subway station anymore. I know where all of the good views across the Hudson are (#doitforthegram -- except I'm not on Instagram because I'm a #grandma). And when I walked into the Fuentidueña Chapel for the second time in 24 hours, the 12th-century statue of Jesus hanging from the cross started chatting me up as if we were old friends.

Divine intervention? Sleep deprivation? The world may never know.

I missed Les Arts Florissants when they did a huge French baroque opera spectacle at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last year. Unfortunately, I have to prioritize school first (much as I wish I didn't) -- I occasionally drop down into NYC for a concert here or there, but I often pay the price of a sleepless week to follow.

I saw the listing for this concert. I checked my calendar. October break. It was destiny. Or maybe just luck. But either way, I had to go. I grabbed a ticket.

So, for those of you who don't know Les Arts Florissants, let me tell you a bit about the ensemble. They have an orchestra and a choir, both of which are fantastic. They got their start in France in the late '70s; American expat harpsichordist William Christie was the director, and still is today (although British tenor Paul Agnew is starting to take over more and more responsibility -- Christie is getting up there in years). And their recordings are all immaculate. Unlike many similar ensembles, whose recordings have shown a steep quality incline in the last couple decades, Les Arts's 1980's recordings are just as clean as those of the last few years.

Considering that fact, I left the concert with a somewhat cynical opinion: "They were amazing -- who knew?"

Bottom line: Gesualdo is difficult. Very difficult. His harmonic language borders on non-functional, almost to contemporary levels. As my father so wisely told 13-year-old me: "You like Bartók? You should try Gesualdo." But I know Les Arts well enough to know that they wouldn't put up a mediocre performance.

Of particular note were the singers at the lower ends of the ensemble. Bass Edward Grint had this plaintive musk to his voice, one that provided a stable resting place for the other five vocalists. Paul Agnew was great as usual (ah, what I would give to be a tenor...), though most of his focus went to shaping the music with tiny, unobtrusive hand gestures. Mélodie Ruvio gave a particularly thrilling performance, a phrase that I don't think I've ever used to describe a choral alto part before. And, when the whole group came together for the chants between verses of scripture...chills.

I don't think there's anything more to say. Les Arts Florissants can do no wrong. If they come around to your neighborhood, DO NOT miss them at any cost. And that's an order.