Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Russian Music Orgy at the CSO

Well, I know where all the high-brow percussionists were last night!  With Mussorgsky's A Night on Bald Mountain, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, and Stravinky's The Rite of Spring on the program, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra dominated its audience with grand crashing chords and lurching anxiety, which made the two hours seem like a quarter that.

The concert hall was pretty full for a Wednesday evening, with attendees of all ages pushing to get their tickets and reach their seats.  Mussorgsky set the tone for the evening - not an evening to sit back and listen, but to sit forward and WATCH.  The stresses and meter in this piece are so uneven and lurching and the swirls of sound that the piece creates got into every corner of the room.  I don't know how anybody could sit comfortably directly behind the orchestra for this program.  There were some excellent clarinet and flute parts (this program was another showcase for the woodwinds), and I think the harp must have been miked because it was a lot more prominent than I was used to... I felt at times that this program was just going for fortissimo oppression of the hall.

I'm pretty sure the entire audience was familiar with everything on the program that evening, so the maestoso first movement of the Tchaikovsky was heard with welcome and relief.  With such a need for precision in the treble and sonority in the bass, I must say that the piano was tuned beautifully.  Performed by 21-year-old Daniil Trifonov, who ambled on stage with gangly limbs and a skateboarder's haircut, I thought, "he's just a kid!" and then ....... he turned into the piece.  Though this famous movement is often looked at as a choppy piece of extreme difficulty, and while this wasn't the cleanest of performances, I thought it was well done, energetic and passionate.  The very clean high trills in the second movement over the waltz-like theme in the orchestra was exquisite and the lively Russian third movement was powerfully played.  This was my favorite part of the evening.

While these days, a standing ovation in the concert hall seems almost required, this time, the audience was rewarded with a flashy encore of the piano version of the Infernal Dance from Stravinsky's Firebird Suite.  I felt like the young pianist was saying, "Oh yeah?  Let's step it up a notch, Chicago.  Here's MY Stravinsky..... let's see what YOU can do!"

And the CSO brought it.  A staple piece that they play well, I felt this time the concert hall was almost unable at times to hold the music in.  Never letting the listener rest for more than a few moments when the solo instruments take over, the orchestra definitely has the capriciousness of this piece down.  Their pesante was nauseatingly so and their take on frantic was almost unbearable.  I hope nobody in the audience came in that evening already anxious.  Bravo.

This concert is being performed again on Saturday evening.  

Also, Happy Birthday, Dad!

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Simon Boccanegra at Chicago's Lyric

This October, the Lyric opened Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, an early opera of Verdi's, which satisfies its listeners with Verdi's typical sweeping melodies and word painting.

A story of disaster, ambition, politics and love, the mostly-male cast, with some fabulous bass and baritone voices, tremble with the anger and exasperation in their attempts to get what they want and satisfy their ambitions and vengeance.

The prologue is very tame and opens with pastoral sounds, much like Beethoven's 6th symphony.  The aria by Ferruccio Furlanetto, who plays Maria's father is full, deep and compelling as he emotionally sings such words of vengeance as "my hate will haunt you."  And so the drama begins.

There is a very nice technique used by the Lyric in the production that allows the scene to expand visually by showing action off stage in shadows.  In fact, with several pillars on the sides of the stage, a new backdrop can be placed conveniently behind a pillar to change the scene while not requiring much set changing.

It isn't until Act 1 that we hear a female voice - in a very silly and poetic (yet beautiful) love song.  Despite the fact that there is only heightened emotional frivolity every time Amelia (the sole female character, who is tugged this way and that, with very little control over her fate) opens her mouth in the first half of the opera, Verdi uses his familiar gorgeous melodic shaping so that regular opera-goers don't even need to hear her words to know what Amelia (played by Krassimira Stoyanova) is saying.

While Act 2 brought in the expected "pena" aria and some beautiful singing by tenor Frank Lopardo ("a jealous rage destroyed my reason") the a cappella trio and the end of Act 2 was sudden and uncomfortable.

There is an unusual duet in Act 3 with two very low voices, which reinforces the feel of the opera - that it is tragedy precipitated by men.  The fates and disasters of these men are wound together.  The bipartisanship that Simon Boccanegra (Thomas Hampson) implores his people to adopt must be a lasting topic, and though this opera still took place in 14th century Genoa, it still has appeal to any audience.

Opera-goers at the Lyric are lucky this year to get to experience such a great production with such experienced singers in these rolls.  Thomas Hampson and Ferruccio Furlanetto have made the roles their own and really make the listener feel with their baritone and bass voices the power, anguish and drama of this lasting and noble story.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Lichtenstein at the Art Institute

I'm seeing primary colors everywhere this summer!  The corner of Adams and State is currently engulfed in color and if you like that, keep walking east to the Art Institute, where the first oeuvre exhibit of Lichtenstein is being presented.

We all know him for his large, over-the-top, two dimensional, dotted works on mundane subjects which had his audience questioning the meaning of art.  I admit to not being very moved by his works but I did experience more appreciation for him today when seeing his works laid out like I did.

A few of the highlights for me:

Reclining Nude in Brushstroke Landscape, 1986

Modern Sculpture with Glass Wave, 1967
I thought this looked like a musical instrument

Cubist Stillife, 1974
"The Old Guitarist?"  Cute.

Washington Crossing the Delaware

The exhibit is fun, not too serious or large, and quite accessible.  I'd recommend going!  Then check out the Italian Renaissance and Baroque drawings on the lower level.  Lots of red chalk drawings and some really amazing detail!
And if you want to meet me at the corner of Adams and State for anything besides the Art Institute, we can go shop at Anthropologie and then get a vodka flight at Russian Tea Time!

How do pastels work?!

Today, at the Art Institute of Chicago, I found myself fascinated by pastel technique.  Cross between painting and drawing, pastels give an artist a lot of control over the look and the lines of a work - usually portraits, from what I can tell.

Here are some of the highlights in my opinion:

Charles-Antoine Coypel
"Portrait of Philippe Coypel and his Wife"

Look at the fine detail of the lace, the sheen of the pearls and the texture of the woman's skin.

Rosalba Carriera
"Young Lady with Parrot" 1730
wet chalk and pastels

This is more what I think of when I think of pastels - all the blending, but even still - so much life is able to be put into a pastel work - why don't more people use them?!

Joseph Wright of Derby
"Self Portrait in Fur Cap" 1765/68
 This looks like a photograph to me.  I'm amazed at what the artist was able to achieve here with monochromatic pastels (grisaille).  This is one of my favorites.

Edgar Degas
"On Stage," 1879-81

Confusingly, the plaque next to the painting says that Degas used pastel and essence over monotype on cream laid paper.  Any idea what this essence might be?  Artists out there?  The essence of genius?  I wonder if I can get some of that in powder form - like pixie dust.

In other news:  Consumers can't do math; Financing for the first high-speed rail in the US has been approved; and you might be able to teach yourself synesthesia!

Happy Fourth of July, Everyone!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

How We Decide

I just finished the book How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer.  You might know him from the book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, which I absolutely LOVED.  This book was along those lines, but not quite as in depth as I would have liked.

How We Decide turns our attention to what are brains are doing when we are making a decision.  How when we go with our gut, our brains seamlessly provide the excuses for our decision, and how often times our emotions know the answer to a tough problem before our brains have picked up on the reasoning.

Things I learned:
  •  In the long run, randomly selected stock portfolios will beat experts and computer models and the best strategy is to pick a low-cost index fund and wait.  Do nothing.
  • Don't think about the technical aspects of doing what you already know how to do (think playing the piano or playing golf)
  • Too much information in many situations hampers decision making.  Our attention cannot focus on what is important to us and may make decisions on things that SOUND important.
  • Watch out for back surgery.  Most patients get better on their own.
  • Neurons mirror the movements of other people.  If you see someone else smile, then your mirror neurons will light up s if you were smiling.  Isn't that nice?
  • Just looking at a fancy or expensive item without the intent to buy, makes you primed to buy something less expensive.  Window shopping is DANGEROUS.
  • Political pundits are more often wrong than those that don't claim to be experts. (thank goodness!)
While the book really started to get interesting just as I reached the end (and it was hard to tell on my kindle with the footnotes and acknowledgements), I did enjoy it and look forward to reading more about the same subject as well as more by this author.

Things I am going to keep in mind:  I'm going to try to think LESS about the decisions that are very important to me, since my emotions can handle those and I'm going to think MORE [rationally] about the small decisions that don't mean as much to me.  We have to make decisions without all the information and Lehrer advises to always remind ourselves of what we don't know.  I'll let you know how it goes.

(My new favorite quote is now, "Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on my dopamine neurons."  Hee hee!  You see.... it's FUNNY.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

El Ideas - a fourteen course meal

Always a fan of creative cooking, Chicago businesses and expensive things, and consistently game for experiencing all three at once, I went with my sister to celebrate her birthday at El Ideas, a small, wonderful, backstreet, laid-back, extremely fun Chicago restaurant. 

The dinner courses proceeded as follows:


A kohlrabi soup with dehydrated olives, chorizo and pepper


layere uni pudding, basmati rice seasoned with yogurt, a crab roulade, lemongrass leaves, a lychee disc topped with ossetra caviar. This is all surrounded in a lychee foam. Freeze dried strawberry is sifted over the top

Cucumber *

Centered around cucumber, with three separate preparations; smoked, pickled, and a gel.  Accompanied by wild char roe, smoked trout, and creme fraiche

Grouper *

Peas cooked in bacon fat, a pea puree, pickled carrots, glazed carrots, mortadella, melted green garlic and mint


[No picture.  Apparently we were busy EATING!]

The Rillette is wrapped in a sheet of pickled turnip to make a cannelloni.  The liver is sous vide with shallot and port, then sieved and whipped with butter to make a light mousse.  Hakuri Turnips are poached in butter and set on the plate, and the dish is finished with mandarin cells and small turnip greens

Fava *

Fava beans are served as a puree and as a salad along with artichokes (shaved and cooked in verjus and dehydrated chips), a serpentine of ricotta and mascarpone cheese, a pudding made with the incredible citroen vinegar from Huilerie Beaujolais, and frizzled rabbit. Lavender enters the scene in aroma only which is poured as a tea tableside over dry ice


Granny Smith apple sorbet and then built a roasted peanut sauce that is seasoned with a bourbon barrel aged soy sauce. Peanut brittle serves as a bed for the sorbet and fresh thyme serves as a great bridge for the flavors

Foie Gras

The liver is cured and made into a mousse, onion is represented in the forms of chive, shallot jam and dehydrated onion.  Freeze dried, seedling farms pickled cherries and rainbow oxalis finish the plate

Ham & Cheese

Benton’s ham with cocoa nibs and Swiss chard. Fontina cheese, and mojo nuts (brought in a couple of weeks earlier from their forager, Dave Odd)


[Again - no picture!  Must have been having a good time!]

coffee streusle with almond flour and coffee, a coffee pudding, and the sauteed sweetbreads are glazed with coffee to finish.  pureed dried apricots for sweetness and fried sage for some herbal notes

Maitake *

Grilled scallion relish, sunchoke is prepared as a puree, a baked chip, and a hash, pecorino cheese, peppercress, and crispy maitake mushrooms


frog legs / malted barley / beer jam / braised sauerkraut / pork belly / red curry

Beef *

rhubarb / celery / black walnuts / ramps / black trumpet mushrooms / hook’s blue cheese / grape must
Wagyu striploin from Strube Ranch


Blueberry compote, orange juice fluid gel, buttermilk panna cotta, froot loop ice cream

Movie Snacks

homemade whoppers, black popcorn with extra topping, pretzles, raisinets made with vine ripened raisins, Coca Cola bubbles, and a Twizzler ice cream

The dishes created by chef Kevin McMullen were definitely my favorite.  There are several of these that I'm just going to HAVE to try to make at home (of course they just won't be as beautiful)!  The trout was fantastic (I thought I didn't like trout).  The fava dish was also great.  Gonna have to work on that!  Or....... I'll just go back sometime soon.  Let me know if you're interested in joining me!

(Kudos also to Bill, the dining room manager for organizing everyone's wines impressively and making things cozy, comfortable and seamless.  Aside from the fancy display for each dish, when I recreate some of these items at home, I'll definitely be missing the ambiance that Bill created!)