March 25, 2012
Thursday night was an evening of firsts for yours truly. It was the first time I’ve been to the beautiful Broad Stage in Santa Monica, it was the first time I’ve been to one of LACO’s Westside Connections concerts, and it was the first time I’ve heard all the pieces in this particular LACO program. To be truthful, it was the first time I’ve ever even heard of one of the composers (and I’m thankful for the introduction), but I’ll get to that in a little bit. First, I should take a second to applaud LACO for their programming ingenuity. This is the second consecutive LACO concert I’ve been to (the first was their Discover Bach’s Magnificat a few weeks ago) that was designed around making orchestral music accessible and revelatory. While Discover Bach’s Magnificat focused on the history and context of one piece of music, last night’s Westside Connections concert wove together a series of pieces under a theme of exploring the connection between music and the culinary arts, and the result was a joyous, intimate, and thoughtful evening.
The special guest was food critic Jonathan Gold, who spoke at the beginning of the evening about how, as a writer, he often relies on the language of music to describe the complex flavors in the dishes he’s eating. He also made some astute comments about the similarities in making food for someone else and playing music for someone else – they’re both personal, multisensory experiences with no equal. He returned later in the evening to share one of his essays, a funny rumination on Spam and its role in kitchens and restaurants across the world.
There was also lovely music – this was a concert, after all – and all of was performed by just a handful of musicians: first a quintet, then a vocalist accompanied by a pianist, then a solo performance by a composer/pianist, and then a sextet. The first half of the concert featured pieces that were literally about, or inspired by, food.
First up was part of a Bach cantata called “I eat with joy”, sung in German by soprano Elissa Johnston, and I’m sure it was lovely, but most of Bach (including this piece) isn’t my cup of tea, so I was kinda waiting for what came next.
What came next was a whimsical song cycle by Leonard Bernstein called La Bonne Cuisine, in which Johnston sang recipes for four different dishes. If that description sounds bizarre on paper, it’s because, well, the piece is bizarre! What I loved most is that it shows how far recipes have come in the past 100 years. La Bonne Cuisine is a seminal French cookbook from the ’20s, and while we’re used to recipes having exact measurements, that’s wasn’t always the case. One recipe that Johnston sung advices the cook “boil flour and water, and add to it the chicken,” while another says to add “some pepper and salt” – how much of any of these things are anybody’s guess!
I’m a little embarrassed to admit I’m not that familiar with much of William Bolcom’s music – and I should be, because I’m a graduate of the University of Michigan, where he taught for over thirty years (including the entire time I was there) – and I’m pretty sure I met him at some campus event or other. Well, I can now say I’m familiar with his Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise, which Johnston sung next – a funny, clever strange little song about the horrendous dishes a ladies group brings to their social events. If the dish in the title doesn’t make you lose your appetite, than perhaps the “Walnut loaf that’s crowned with melted cheese” will. Or, my personal favorite, “strawberry ice, enshrined in rice, with bits of tuna fish.” Bon Appetit!
The final piece before Gold’s Spam essay was a piano solo called “Sorbet” that was performed by its composer, Timothy Andres. At first I didn’t know what to think of its repetition and dissonant moments, but the piece won me over – it was charming and engaging, and I loved that Andres’ sheet music was downloaded onto his iPad! Yep, there’s an app for that.
The second half of the concert was a lively, staggering performance of Dohnanyi’s Sextet in C major. This is the composer I’ve never heard of before – and I don’t think I’d be able to pronounce his name correctly if a gun was pointed at my head. It was astounding how just six instruments (piano, violin, viola, cello, clarinet, and horn) could sound so lush and full and fill the auditorium with such power. This is a piece of music I could listen to again and again – and I will, because I just downloaded a recording of it from iTunes and added it to my iPod.
Thank you, Westside Connections curator Margaret Batjer and LACO, for introducing me to this exceptional piece of music, and for a fantastic evening at Westside Connections! I can’t wait for the third and final concert of the series, with special guest Susan Feniger, on April 5!
Will I see you there?