Monday, January 31, 2011

The Tibetan Memory Trick

Remember The Great Panjandrum? Today I reconnected with a similar example of "marvelous nonsense" in the English language. It has been so many years since I last heard it that I had forgotten all about it. Then, while ransacking the internet in search of one of my favorite tongue-twisters, which was right on the tip of... well, you know... I unexpectedly found this:

The Tibetan Memory Trick
  • One hen.
  • Two ducks.
  • Three squawking geese.
  • Four Limerick oysters.
  • Five corpulent porpoises.
  • Six pairs of Don Alfonso's tweezers.
  • Seven thousand Macedonians in full battle array.
  • Eight brass monkeys from the ancient sepulchers of Egypt.
  • Nine apathetic sympathetic diabetic old men on roller skates with a marked propensity towards procrastination and sloth.
  • Ten lyrical spherical diabolical denizens of the deep who haul sail around the corner of the quay of the cove all at the same time.
There are many variants of this, which have come down through oral tradition from unknown origins. Since at least the 1940s, one version of it has been used as an "announcer's test" to gauge a prospective radio presenter's nimbleness of tongue. It makes a great vocal warmup and diction exercise. Another version has been passed down through generations of Boy Scouts as a "repeat after me" game, in which you start by repeating the first line, then the first two lines, then the first three, and so on until you (try to) rattle off all ten items in one staccato rush. Some folks have even added an eleventh verse that has something to do with the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, an homage to Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe trilogy. There are several videos on Youtube of people performing versions of the TMT, e.g. here and here.

Why do I think this is great? Well, I like language. I like the feel of words rolling off the tongue, sparking a chaotic series of bizarre mental images. I like the bundling-together of tongue-twister, memory game, and orally transmitted folklore in one irreverently goofy package. And I like the excuse to mention what I believe may be the most excruciating tongue-twister in the English language: "The sea seetheth, then ceaseth, and thus sufficeth us." Forget about saying it fast three times in a row; I can't even say it once without the word "thesis" somehow finding its way in there!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Lentil Soup for Dummies

Today being my first wide-open, do-nothing day in more weeks than I care to count--possibly even months--I decided it was time to make an all-day recipe: pea soup. Then I found out that that the 1-lb. bag in my cupboard, which I had thought was a bag of dried split peas, was actually lentils. That dialed it down to only a half-day recipe, so with my bonus time I might go see a movie this afternoon!

The reason pea soup takes me all day, but lentils only half a day, has to do with my peculiar taste in both kinds of soup. Some people serve a pea soup in which tender but separately intact peas swim in a delicious broth with pieces of ham, vegetables, and aromatic seasonings; others cook them until they turn into a mush, then strain out the skins and some of the excess fluid and serve them as a lumpy gruel. While I have enjoyed delightful bowls of both types of pea soup, my preference is to boil the peas down until they completely dissolve, skin and all, into a cloudy broth...and then keep boiling the broth for hours and hours, reducing it down to a silky-smooth goo that thickens even more as it cools, until you can (at least almost) stick a spoon in it and the spoon stays upright.

Because this generally takes not only a whole day but a good deal of the night as well, I have only done it a few times. It would probably be smart of me just to make the mushy-gruel-type pea soup, add some of the fluid back in & whip it in a food processor, but I don't have a food processor and there's something about the final result of the "all-day way" that I would really hate to miss.

Lentil soup, on the other hand, has often been served to me as an indiscriminate mush, but the best varieties are on the "tender lentils in a savory broth" order. There needn't be much in the broth, except a couple of well-chosen herbs, some onion, and perhaps some meat. I've enjoyed lentil soup made with roast venison, chopped-up hard summer sausage, and bacon ends & pieces, and even a mysteriously-spiced ground sausage that I found in my freezer and still can't tell whether it was meant to be Italian or breakfast sausage. But ordinarily, I haven't made it with ham, because when I put frozen, bone-in ham in my fridge to thaw, it is usually with the idea of making pea soup. And so today, I made my first lentil-and-ham soup. This was a stroke of luck, since what I thought were ham-hocks (which I would throw away after they were done lending their flavor to the smooth pea soup) turned out to be more like a bone-in ham-roast cut into three chunks with lots of meat on them.

So I ended up with a broth full of al dente lentils and off-the-bone-tender chunks of ham. I've just eaten a bowl of it, and it was superb, even if I say so myself. Here's how a clueless bachelor, especially one who is a beginner at this sort of thing, can do what I did.

  • A working stove that you can use, without being challenged, for several hours running.
  • A supply of running water, preferably including hot water.
  • A reasonable amount of counter space.
  • A clean, medium-sized stock pot (say, 2-1/2 gallons) with a tight-fitting lid, preferably vented
  • A clean liquid measuring cup. (I have one that holds 8 cups of liquid at one time, and I find that it saves steps.)
  • A big, sturdy, and above all clean slotted spoon (use wood or plastic if your pot has a non-stick coating).
  • A disposable aluminum-foil baking sheet (best if not previously used).
  • A clean metal fork.
  • A clean, sharp steak knife.
  • A clean colander or pasta strainer.
  • A clean soup ladle or scoop.
  • A clean soup bowl and table spoon.
  • An oven timer or alarm clock (the "kitchen timer" function on a microwave oven will do).
  • A spice rack already stocked with all the standard herbs and spices.
  • Optional: a pair of clean kitchen tongs.
  • Dish soap, clean dishcloths and towels, for cleaning up afterward, or for cleaning any of the above itms (as needed) before you use them.
  • Clean, sealable storage container(s) for the leftovers.
  • A package of fresh or frozen chunks of bone-in ham; if frozen, let them thaw in your fridge (still tightly wrapped up) for a couple days ahead of time.
  • A one-pound bag of dried lentils.
  • A packet of crackers and/or the leftover breadsticks from last night's pizza delivery.
  • Quick-soak the lentils. This is to say:
    • Open the bag of dried lentils and pour them into the stock-pot. IMPORTANT: Don't cook the bag. You can throw that away.
    • Add enough piping-hot water to submerge the beans under 2 inches of water, about 4 cups.
    • Turn on the stove, particularly the flame or heating element directly under the stock-pot. NOTE: No useful objective is served by lighting the stove if the pot isn't on top of the part that is lit.
    • Heat the pot over "high" heat until the water boils.
    • After letting it boil for two minutes, turn off the heat, cover the pot and set the timer or alarm clock to ring an hour later.
    • When the timer or alarm has gone off, remove the lid from the pot and pour its contents into the colander or strainer. IMPORTANT: It is best if the strainer is located in the sink at this point.
    • Rinse the beans a bit (losing as few as possible down the drain), rinse out the inside of the pot, and return the beans to the pot.
  • Add the ham chunks (minus their wrappings) to the pot with the pre-soaked lentils.
  • Add 6 cups of piping hot water and bring it to a boil. (See previous note about which heating element or flame to light.)
  • Reduce heat as low as possible so that the water continues to simmer (bubbling gently) without exactly boiling.
  • Put the cover on the pot and set the timer or alarm clock to go off in another 90 minutes. (TIP: If the lid falls right in, it's the wrong one. Fish it out and try a bigger lid until you find one that stays on top of the pot. Be careful not to put your hand directly in the boiling water, because t's, like, scalding hot, dude.)
  • Stay within earshot of the kitchen while the pot is simmering.
    • Good noises to hear: a soft bubbling sound, the lid of the pot gently vibrating, maybe an occasional faint hiss of escaping steam.
    • Bad noises to hear: loud rattling, hissing, and bubbling indicating a more rapid boil; a dribbling sound from the water boiling over; the smoke alarm; sirens; screams; people pounding on your door and asking if you're all right.
    • Also, be alert to smells: cooking ham, good; acrid smoke, burning metal, and melted plastic, bad.
  • Give the contents a stir now and then, using the slotted spoon. (TIP: Hold the spoon so that the "slotted" bit is pointed downward into the simmering liquid, while your hands remain high and dry.)
  • At the end of 90 minutes, remove the lid of the pot and fish out the chunks of bone and meat, using the kitchen tongs or, if none are available, the fork and slotted spoon.
  • Place the meat-and-bone chunks on the disposable baking sheet. Then, using the fork and knife, separate the meat from the bones. Trim off excess fat and cut the meat into bite-sized hunks; then, return it to the pot. TIP: If you are using ham hocks, which are basically pigs' feet, you might want to skip this step and simply throw the meat & bones away, or refrigerate them in a sealed container for another soup-making project within a day or two.
  • Add any additional seasonings you see fit to add. I would suggest some dried onion, a couple of whole bay leaves; 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon each of black pepper and garlic powder, and maybe chili powder and/or celery salt; a pinch or so each of sage, thyme, rosemary, and basil, or maybe the equivalent number of pinches of just one or two of the above.
  • After giving the seasoned soup a good stir and a moment to simmer, turn off the heat, and use the scoop or ladle to dish up a bowl of your new soup. TIP: Leave the bay leaves in the pot.
  • Enjoy your soup.
    • TIP: Use a spoon to eat it; otherwise the liquid will run through the slots in your fork.
    • ANOTHER TIP: Try dipping crackers and/or bread-sticks in your soup. Or, crumble up a cracker or two into the bottom of your bowl to soak up the last of the soup.
  • When the remaining soup in the pot has cooled enough to be handled safely, pour it (bay leaves and all) into the storage container(s), seal them, and refrigerate to eat as leftovers tomorrow or within the week.
  • If you want to keep your leftovers longer than that, seal them in a freezer-safe container (no more than half full) and stick them in the freezer.
  • You may find that the flavors actually improve after a night in the fridge.
    • TIP: Transfer a serving of chilled, leftover soup to a microwavable dish, cover loosely (e.g. with a paper plate) and reheat in the microwave until piping-hot, stirring after every minute or so in the microwave.
    • ANOTHER TIP: Don't eat the bay leaves. Leave them in the storage container until you're down to the last serving of leftover soup, then throw them away.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

9.5 Theses on Pizza

These assertions are open to debate.
  1. No one who makes a bad pizza crust can make a good pizza; no one who makes a good pizza sauce would make a bad pizza.
  2. Much can be forgiven a pizza (e.g., mediocre sauce, skimpy cheese and/or toppings), provided that it has an exceptional crust.
  3. While a good sauce can promote a pizza from mediocre to fairly good, or from fairly good to very good, no one can make a spectacular pizza without a spectacular crust.
  4. Though St. Louis style pizza (thin crispy crust + provel cheese) allows you to stuff more square inches of meat, cheeze, and vegetables before you get full, it provides little scope for distinguishing between fair and excellent pizza.
  5. Because Chicago style (deep-dish) pizza is dominated by its crust, it takes less acreage to fill you up; but its toppings have to be tremendous to push it into the "exceptional" bracket.
  6. Most other pizza varieties are both rarities and novelties, requiring a great deal more time and competition to develop their potential for true excellence.
  7. Therefore a pizzoisseur's greatest chance of experiencing a wide range of quality lies on regular, hand-tossed crust topped with red sauce, mozzarella cheese, and other toppings ad lib.
  8. A more generous layer of melted mozzarella can break a tie between two pizzas of otherwise equal excellence.
  9. One meat-based topping (pepperoni, ham, beef, bacon, sausage, etc.) is best enhanced by exactly one vegetable (olives, shrooms, peppers, pineapple, roma tomatoes)--but a touch of shredded onion can make a magical difference in any combination of pizza toppings.
9.5... Eat it while it's hot out of the oven. As it approaches room temperature, a pizza's deliciousness decreases irreversibly.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Gamy Tackiness

This week's lighted-sign message at the local ELCA Platform for Pious Platitudes:


This seems to be based on the symbols used to rate the maturity level of video games, like the ones I used to sell during my sojourn in retail. "Ao" for Adults Only, "M" for Mature, "T" for Teen, "E10+" for Everyone 10 and older, "eC" for Early Childhood, etc. So this sign shows an awareness of the world young people live in--one might even go as far as to say "hipness"--that is amazing to see in a group of people who still think reader-board messages such as "AUTUMN LEAVES, JESUS DOESN'T" are going to reach the unsaved.

On the other hand, I'm not sure the product is labeled accurately. After some of the decisions the ELCA made at its most recent nationwide Synod, I wouldn't assume their programming is altogether "family-friendly"....

Monday, January 24, 2011

Opera Goes to the Movies

I've been terribly remiss in my intention to go to the local cinema when it is showing the Metropolitan Opera (of New York) in live digital video. Just when I make up my mind to go see a particular opera, a schedule conflict crops up. So, year after year, it doesn't happen.

Recently, however, I sprang for a DVD of an opera, and I watched it today. The opera was Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc, performed in English by The Australian Opera in 1984, under the direction of Richard Bonynge and featuring the late and lamented Joan Sutherland. The celebrated opera star plays Madame Lidoine, the Mother Superior of a French convent at the time of the French Revolution.

There is a true story behind this opera (which, I believe, Poulenc based on an unproduced screenplay). Eleven nuns, three lay sisters, and two convent servants went to the guillotine in 1794 and became Catholic martyrs who, today, are well on their way toward canonization.

It is a difficult story to watch. These women saw their doom coming but did not stop doing what they believed in, and faced death with great courage. Mostly. One way the opera departs from historical fact is the death scene of Mme. Lindoine's predecessor as Mother Superior, Mme. de Croissy, who in reality was one of the 16 who rode the tumbril that day in 1797. In the opera, Mme. de Croissy suffers an excruciating death at the end of Act 1. This scene is a gruelling depiction of physical pain and spiritual unrest, made all the more vivid by the spectacular acting of Danish mezzo Lone Koppel. In a profound way, everything goes downhill after her character's death.

Another non-historical figment of Poulenc's libretto is the central character of Blanche de la Force, played in this 1984 Australian production Scotch prima donna Isobel Buchanan. In a story that is essentially about courage, her character's struggle to overcome paralyzing fear makes a moving, personal framework for a story that otherwise is held at a respectful distance. But I noticed there is no "Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ" listed among the Martyrs of Compiègne. Nevertheless her free choice to climb the steps to the guillotine in the final moments of the opera puts an ironic veneer of "happy ending" on an otherwise inevitably tragic tale.

Also appearing in this film are Kiwi diva Heather Begg as Mother Mary, Australian baritone Geoffrey Chard as Blanche's father, and long-time down-under Phantom of the Opera lead Anthony Warlow in a minor role. I enjoyed the acting, and one ensemble number in particular was very beautiful. Mostly it wasn't the kind of opera that is stuffed with tuneful arias, rather it was a sung drama in which the dialogue is set to highly expressive recitative and backed up by striking orchestral music.

Though it was sung in English, I would have understood much more of the dialogue had the cheapo Kultur DVD production bothered to include captions. In my opinion, failing to include captions in any DVD video is a breach of the contract the video industry made with consumers when they persuaded us to switch from VHS, and any video that lacks them loses beaucoup points on my scorecard.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Antigravity Music & Antihero Movie

This past weekend I participated in two live performances, one of them broadcast on classical radio, of Brahms's German Requiem with David Robertson conducting the St. Louis Symphony Chorus and Orchestra. Also singing with us were soprano Twyla Robinson, who did Rossini's Stabat Mater with us a couple years ago, and baritone Stephen Powell. And if I may say so, they were very powerful and beautiful performances.

This was my second German Requiem with the Symphony. The previous one, five years ago, was part of a program in which we also sang John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls (in memory of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center), a program with which we not only ended the 2005-06 season but also earned raves at Carnegie Hall. While that, to-date my only trip to New York, was a pinnacle experience, I think this performance was even better. I believe we took our musicianship further, and I personally benefited from being more comfortable with the piece to being able to participate on a higher level while being spiritually moved at the same time.

The German Requiem, officially ein Deutsches Requiem, is not a version of the liturgical rite for the dead. Rather, it is a choral cantata based on texts Brahms himself selected from the Luther Bible. Though he avoids explicit mention of Christ or the atonement, Brahms chooses verses that a Christian will instinctively associate with some of Jesus' most deeply comforting promises, especially for those who grieve or who tremble in the face of their own mortality. It is a non-sectarian kind of comfort that Brahms intended to embrace people of all faiths, but it is also a comfort that Christians, and especially Lutherans, can hardly separate from the original context of the lyrics.

Movement 1, performed without violins, opens the work with a sonic exploration of the gray, shadowy, gloomy, even muddy world of grief. But the music grows tenderly hopeful with the words: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted..." Movement 2 presents the sobering thought that even the brightest flower of mankind must wither and die: "For all flesh is as grass...but the Word of the Lord abides forever." This last phrase pivots the piece into such a strong affirmation of hope that I almost got choked up singing it: "The ransomed of the Lord will return... Joy, everlasting joy, will be upon their heads."

Movement 3 is a dialogue between the baritone soloist and the chorus, as between a teacher and his students, the one "lining out" the lesson that the others repeat back to him: "Lord, teach me that there must be an end to me... Now, Lord, with what shall I comfort myself? I hope in You." It concludes with a fugue over an immovably solid pedal point: "The souls of the righteous are in God's hand, and no torment will ever touch them."

Movement 4 is the sweet, delicate, at times almost ecstatic anthem: "How lovely are Your dwellings, O Lord of Hosts... Blessed are they who dwell in Your house; they are always praising You." Then comes Movement 5, the heart of the piece, a very slow solo for soprano accompanied by breathlessly soft chorus. By putting Jesus' words in the soprano's mouth, particularly at a time when the composer himself grieved for his mother's death, Brahms suggests that what we are hearing are the sentiments of the dearly departed themselves: "You now have sorrow, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one takes your joy from you..." The chorus, as though whispering the inner thoughts behind these words, repeatedly sings: "I want to comfort you as one's mother comforts him."

Movement 6 is full of the mystery of the resurrection, the chorus carrying the main part of the argument while the baritone soloist fills in a few recitative-like bits: "For we have here no abiding city, rather we seek the one to come..." This gradually builds up to an overwhelming climax, which a friend in the audience described as "like an explosion": "Death is swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your sting? Hell, where is your victory?" Brahms finishes this movement with a lengthy, jubilant fugue, saying: "Lord, You are worthy to receive praise and glory and power...."

Finally, Movement 7 brings the piece full circle with a musical quotation from the first movement, while at the same time moving us far beyond the opening beatitude about here-and-now grief to present a more forward-looking view of death and beyond: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, the Spirit says that they rest from their labor...."

If you haven't heard these comforting words set to Brahms's stunning music, don't wait until someone close to you dies to do so. Learn to know and love the German Requiem now, so that you will know which tracks to turn to when you or someone you know needs comfort.

This weekend's concert, concluding with the above work, also featured the U.S. Premiere (!!) of a piece written in memory of the Columbia astronauts, titled "Seven," by Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös, who is apparently one of the most successful composers alive today to judge by the proportion of his operas that are currently in production somewhere in the world (i.e., 7 out of 7). David Robertson credits the fact that "all the other orchestras in this country are so boring" for the serendipity of our being able to hear it played for the first time on American soil.

"Seven" is a violin concerto in two movements, the first of which is a series of accompanied cadenzas representing each of the seven astronauts, and the second of which seems to rhapsodize on the human achievement of space flight. The orchestra included some unusual instruments, such as a bass flute, and was divided into seven ensembles on the stage, plus six additional solo violins deployed around the auditorium. It's a really modernistic piece, creating some spacy impressionistic sound-images and ending with the soloist making some unearthly sounds one might not have realized a violin could make. Our soloist this weekend was Akiko Suwanai, who (if I understood correctly) originally commissioned the piece.

And tonight, I wrapped up the arts-and-entertainment portion of my weekend with a long-anticipated trip to the movies. My film of choice was The Green Hornet, a hysterically funny, action-packed, blow-'em-up Marvel Comics movie based on the perfect character for Seth Rogen to play (and it ought to be, since he co-wrote the screenplay): a slacker superhero whose powers mostly consist of being rich, stubborn, and reckless, and whose survival in a crime-ridden city is due mainly to the journalistic research of his unwitting mastermind (Cameron Diaz) and the mechanical and martial-arts genius of his driver Kato (Chinese rock star Jay Chou owning lock, stock, and barrel, the role originally created by Bruce Lee).

The show also features a grumpy newspaper editor played by Edward James Olmos and a ridiculously insecure villain played by recent Oscar alum Christoph Waltz. And though there are some terrific chases and scenes of massive property destruction and numerous casualities, the coolest scene for my money is the fight between the two sidekicks, which ultimately leads to the climactic moment where the Green Hornet apparently agrees to assassinate himself... You'll just have to see it to understand what I mean.

IMAGES from top: Twyla Robinson; Stephen Powell; Akiko Suwanai; Péter Eötvös; Seth Rogen & Jay Chou in The Green Hornet.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Spaghetti à Dad

Here is another comfort-food masterpiece for which I have a strong nostalgia, though it's been decades since I've tasted it. I have seen recipes for marinara sauce that actually take more than one day to make (it's one of those things that improves overnight in the fridge). I have seen a very creditable recipe that can be made in about half an hour (and it only has 8 ingredients). But again, for the all-stops-pulled-out, three-meat family spaghetti dinner, which wants only some garlic bread and a couple of antipasti to rival the Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner as a family feast, my money is on Dad's all-day recipe. Which, I think, is based on what my Mom's Sicilian-American father used to make for the whole clan once a year or so. Without further ado, over to Dad:
For Sauce:
  • Four small cans of Tomato Paste
  • Two medium cans of Tomato Puree
  • Four #8 cans of Tomato Sauce
  • 12 large cans of Tomato juice
  • 1 lb. of Country Style Ribs
  • 1 lb. package of really good Italian sausage in the skins
  • 1 large garlic, or 6 to 8 good sized cloves, or pre-diced garlic in the jar
  • 1 medium onion
  • Olive Oil—Extra Virgin (Is there really any other kind?)
  • Spices:
    • Cumin
    • Rosemary
    • Basil
    • Garlic powder
    • Onion powder
    • Thyme
    • Fennel
    • Oregano
    • Salt
    • Sugar
    • Black Pepper
For Meatballs:
  • 2 lbs (or more) good hamburger
  • Pre-packaged Italian Bread Crumbs (Contadina is nice)
  • 2 large eggs
Also a good quality, long Spaghetti pasta.

Plan to spend the entire day on the sauce. This process takes six to eight hours, but doesn’t require close attention at
all times.

Get a large pot15 quart sauce pot is goodpreferably with a good, thick bottom that spreads the heat evenly, reducing the likelihood of scorching the sauce. Heat the pot, coating the bottom of the pot with a thin layer of Olive Oil. When the oil is hot, brown the country-style ribs, then remove them from the pot; brown the Italian sausage and remove it from the pot.

Chop the onion fairly fine and add it to the hot grease. Pour the tomato paste into the hot grease in the bottom of the pot, stir and watchyou want to brown, but not burn or scorch, the tomato paste. That removes the bitterness from the paste. When the paste is lightly browned, add the puree, sauce, and eight to ten cans of juice. Stir, and set the heat to bring the sauce to a simmernot a rolling boil.

While the sauce heats, peel and chop the garlic, and add it to the heating sauce. Season the sauce with salt (liberally), pepper (sparingly), a cons
iderable amount of Oregano, liberal amounts of garlic powder and onion powder, a teaspoon of sugar, a pinch or two each of the other spices (later you can add more of them to taste), and two or three pinches of fennel; some believe the fennel is optional.

Stir the sauce occasionally, watching the heat so that it does not boil too hard and does not scorch. You will be reducing the tomato juice down, and as the water evaporates out, you will be adding the othe
r cans of juice to the sauce. I have been known to use 15 cans of juice in a good sauce. When the sauce is simmering, put the ribs and the Italian sausage into the sauce to simmer along with the sauce. Taste the sauce occasionally; if it seems to need a spice or two now and then, don’t be afraid to add it.

While the sauce is cooking, mix up the meatballs. Mix the hamburger, two eggs, and a cup or two of Italian breadcrumbs; salt lightly, add a pinch of fennel and any other spices you prefer in your meatballs. Roll the meatballs about golf-ball size and place them on a cookie sheet with a raised lip, or in a cake pan. Brown the meatballs in the oven at 350̊ . Don’t neglect to turn them after about ten minut
es to brown them evenly. Set the meatballs aside, covered with foil or a towel until later in the process.

Simmer your sauce for a good four hours. Remove the meat to a platter. Yes, the ribs will be falling apart tender; you can toss the bones if you like. Remove the sauce from the heat and allow it to cool to room temperature, or below if you have a convenient way to chill the sauce. When the sauce is cool, remove the grease (a ladle usually works, or a small coffee cup) from the top of the sauce. If it gets good and cold, the grease will harden and turn white-ish. Then you can just pick the grease off. Make sure you wipe the clinging sauce back into the pot with a spoon, and discard the grease.

Now, slowly reheat the sauce. The cooling process causes the flavors to blend better (you know how spaghetti always seems to taste better left over?). As the sauce heats up, add the meatballs to the sauce to heat up and finish cooking in the sauce. When the sauce is warm, taste it for the final spicing. Add the spices you think it needs to your taste, but be less aggressive than earlier; a little seasoning will go farther now.

Add the ribs and sausage back into the sauce to re-heat, and bring
the sauce to a gentle simmer, stirring regularly to keep it from scorching. It should cook for nearly an hour.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta. Add the dry pasta to hot water. Watch it so that it doesn’t get too mushy. You want it al dentejust a little chewy, but not hard and not real soft. Some Italians will toss a noodle against the wall (or ceiling) and if it sticks, it is ready. I just take a piece when it seems about ready and chew on it. You can feel when it is too hard, and, hopefully, it won’t seem too mushy.

Stir into the water a couple of teaspoons of Olive Oil, and drain the Spaghetti. Do not rinse it. You might like to add a small amount of sauce to the finished noodles and toss them for color and to help them not stick (which is also what the Olive Oil is supposed to do).

Now, when the sauce is simmering well, remove it from the heat. Remove the meat to platters
meatballs to a bowl, the other two meats can share a platter, or not as you please. You can serve the sauce in a tureen or a gravy boat, or from the pan as it pleases you. Some people will also have Parmesan cheese available for those who do not enjoy good spaghetti, but the use of it should be classified as a criminal offense after all the work has gone into making a perfect sauce. The only real debate is whether you put the meatballs on the pasta before you ladle a generous portion of sauce on, or after. The other meats generally are on the side.
Mind you, this isn't your "sauce, meat, and noodles mixed together in one pot" type of spaghetti feast. This is the slow-food, every-dish-in-the-china-cabinet, please-pass-the-boat-of-marinara-sauce type of meal in which that salad with onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers in a dill-flecked brine is served as a side, and so is a lettuce salad in a sweet creamy house-made dressing, and the oven-toasted garlic bread comes from a loaf the size of a baseball bat, and there is a special pleasure in knowing that the tomatoes in the sauce were home-canned, all the herbs home-grown, and the sausage made according to a recipe that remains a strict family secret to this day. To keep your anticipation on edge while the cooking goes on, sample dishes of sauce, sausage, and meatballs go around at discreet intervals. And later, in the living room or on the front porch, while the adults settle their stomach with sips of amaretto, we children suck on cups of lemon-ice. Aaaah.... It's like being back there again.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

NST 16

We continue our labor of (admonitory) love where we left off, in poking fun at the hymn selection of the Ambassador Hymnal, with its water-thin doctrinal content, glue-thick adherence to artistically inferior music, and general unsuitability for group worship in a church that bears the name Lutheran...

Hymn 606 is Nothing between (first line: Nothing between my soul and the Savior), with words and music by Methodist minister Charles A. Tindley (1852-1933), giving additional credit to one Dan Peterman (b. 1925) for his harmonically undistinguished, part-songy arrangement of the tune. The only moment where the music is remotely interesting is the rhythm of the words "Nothing preventing the least of his favor" in the refrain, especially surprising given the page layout of AH, which places this trip hazard right after a page break. Meanwhile, the text puts into each worshiper's mouth the boast, "I have renounced all sinful pleasure--Jesus is mine! There's nothing between." Is this one of those things that's OK to sing, even if it isn't necessarily true, because we hope that by singing it we will convince ourselves to do it? Either way, the message grates against Lutheran ideas in several ways. It smacks of decisionism, for one; it denies the means of grace, for another. With great effort one could correctly interpret this hymn as an expression of total devotion, but all the heavy lifting seems to take place at "my" end. What ever happened to "Jesus does it all"?

Hymn 608 is Lead, kindly Light, amid th'encircling gloom, John Henry Newman's (1801-90) words set to the tune "Lux Benigna" by John B. Dykes (1823-76). I have already said as much as I ought to about this hymn. At the risk of saying more than I ought, I might add that Newman phrases his anthem to Christ in such a way that you might think the only relevance He has for our life lies in His moral influence. Newman's piety seems to be all about Jesus' impersonal, mystical involvement in our journey of spiritual experience, rather than any objective, historical, flesh-and-bone facts about who He is and what He has done.

Hymn 609 is We would see Jesus, for the shadows lengthen, words by Anna B. Warner (1827-1915, the author of "Jesus loves me, this I know") set to the tune "Consolation" by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-47). Having sung and played some lovely pieces by Mendelssohn, I find it hard to believe this straight-edged, square-cornered piece represents his original intentions. More likely, it has been adapted within an inch of losing all semblance to its maker's handiwork. Its gushy effeminacy, unfortunately, is probably authentic. The text takes its departure from "Sir, we would see Jesus" (John 12:21), a phrase that I saw engraved on a sign inside the pulpit of a church where I once preached. I find the point of that simple sign easier to take than this hymn, because for all the hymnist's (and the singers') avowed wish to see Jesus, they don't seem able to locate Him in the preached Word and the Sacraments. Apparently, if you follow Miss Warner's line of thought, you don't really get to see Jesus until we get to heaven. Meanwhile, we have to deal with the heaviness of such phrases as "Other lights are paling" and "Yet the spirit lingers" until one really feels a longing for death.

It strikes me, just now, how interesting it is to see 608 and 609 on facing pages, when one is all about making the best of this life, the other about marking time until the next. Isn't it amazing that such opposites can exist side-by-side without bursting the shackles of tackiness?

610 is Jesus, Rose of Sharon (first line: "Jesus, Rose of Sharon, bloom within my heart"), with words by Ida A. Guirey (no dates given, early 20th century) and the tune "Rose of Sharon" by Charles H. Gabriel (1856-1932). When I look at the list of all the songs to which the latter contributed, I feel a sense of despair. It's not that it isn't a nice tune; in fact, as harmonically sedentary, echoey part-songs go, it's quite lovely. And except for the premillennial implications of the last stanza ("Till the nations own Thy Sov'reignty complete..."), the text makes nice use of the Rose-of-Sharon metaphor. Except for one thing: Song of Songs 2:1, where the biblical image of "rose of sharon" appears, seems to apply it not to Christ but to His Bride. How embarrassing! For four whole stanzas we're addressing Him as the female character to whom, moreover, He stands as Bridegroom. Tsk.

611 is Teach me Thy Way, O Lord, a hymn in the same meter as "Nearer, my God, to Thee"--which is worth mentioning because there are many such hymns and they all breathe the same spirit. Both the lyrics and the tune ("Camacha") are by one B. Mansell Ramsey (1849-1923), whose fame now rests almost solely on this hymn. It's all quite nice, in a nothing-special way that contrasts depressingly with the hundreds of outstanding Lutheran hymns left out of this book. Perhaps as a sign that Ramsey was more musician than hymnographer, the overall pleasantness of the hymn almost obscures the fact that it calls on Jesus, in all kinds of troubling situations, not for His comfort or grace, but for information and advice: "Teach me Thy Way," again and again.

612 is I'm but a stranger here, a hymn by Thomas Rawson Taylor (1807-35), wedded to the tune "St. Edmund" by Arthur S. Sullivan. Click the link on the composer's name and you'll see that I've already thrown this hymn down and stamped on it. I am ashamed to say this hymn has even infected the piety of my own Missouri Synod, going all the way back to The Lutheran Hymnal (1941), so what I say about it discomfits me as much as anyone else; but I am not the only one. My ears still sting from the harangue on this hymn, of which one of my seminary profs unburdened himself over a decade ago. The gist was that one can sincerely sing a hymn like this only if one believes either that Christ's death and resurrection obliterated the incarnation, or that He was only ever "made man" in appearance only. This thought seems to lie implicit behind all such hymns of pietistic renunciation; because what Christ did not assume, He did not redeem. Hence this life and all that it has in it is meaningless; the only real thing awaits us in heaven. This is a hymn that should fit right into the spirituality of Christians who now, more and more widely, opt for cremation rather than burial; because they have imbibed the idea, in common with pagan culture, that after the soul departs, the body is a worthless empty shell.

On the other hand, a Christianity founded on the conviction that God and Man became one Person in Christ, never again to be separated, will also insist on the distinctive practice of Christian burial--the planting of a seed still precious to the Lord who redeemed it; the respectful preservation of an honored vessel; the peaceful slumbering of a saint who will one day soon be awakened, transformed, and glorified for eternity. The body, and the material world in which it lives, are not just so much dead weight to be sloughed off so that the spirit can be free; rather, when your soul and body are separated in death, your soul pines for the part of yourself that you have left behind, until the whole "you" is reconstituted again. Because the eternal Son became flesh, died, lives again, and now sits at the Father's right hand, all creation has been renewed and sanctified to the holy use of God's holy people. Even while it writhes in birth pangs and awaits the deliverance to come, it is still God's world where He has called us to live, and how we live in that calling is of great consequence. To say, "I'm but a stranger here, Heaven is my home," etc., is basically to deny all that and say, "Phooey on this life! It's all just a tedious layover before our flight to the real destination." My prayer is that a few who read this will give this serious thought. Perhaps then this hymn will stick in their throat as it does in mine.

615 is More about Jesus (first line: "More about Jesus would I know"), with words by Eliza E. Hewitt (1851-1920) and the tune "Sweney" by John R. Sweney (1837-99). It's a catchy little part-song number with a jaunty, swinging rhythm concealing its static harmony. But rather than teaching us more about Jesus, it goes on and on for four stanzas (with a refrain), ceaselessly pounding the moral imperative to learn more about Jesus. Stanza 2 prays, "Spirit of God, my teacher be, Showing the things of Christ to me"--prior to any hint of how one gets access to that Spirit. Stanza 3 does locate where you can learn "more about Jesus"--"in His Word...hearing His voice in ev'ry line," which at least saves the hymn from failing to tell you how to learn more about Jesus; but the accent seems to be on absorbing useful information about Jesus rather than finding Him coming into your life through Word and Sacrament. "More about Jesus" is all very well, but once you have absorbed all the data available about Him, are all your problems supposed to be solved?

623 is Face to Face with Christ my Savior, a hymn in the meter of "What a Friend we have in Jesus," with words by Carrie E. Breck (1855-1934) and music by Grant C. Tullar (1869-1950), the author of a well-known devotional poem called "The Weaver." Again, the assumption of this hymnal seems to be that as "conservative" Lutherans, it behooves us to preserve a given slice of the past. Unfortunately, the slice selected by AH is the American Protestant culture of the mid- to late 19th century, a crucible in which anything distinctively Lutheran must boil away. The emphasis in this particular hymn is so inimical to Lutheran theology that it can only turn up the flame. For now we look forward to seeing Jesus "far beyond the starry sky," but until then, "Only faintly now I see Him, With the darkened veil between..." In other words, He is not with us as He promised (Matthew 18:20; 28:20); rather He is separated from us by an infinitely vast distance, if not actually separated from His assumed humanity; and so we cannot, in our present life, participate in full communion with Him through Word and Sacrament. What a bummer it would be to believe this. I don't think I would be able to wait to meet Jesus face to face; I would probably blow my brains out.

Then come several hymns I haven't the heart to pick apart except to remark on their "old-time religion" part-song music, which (I find) suffuses worship with the lukewarm, sickly sweetness of spiritual sentimentality, a flavor that generally makes me want to spit. Thus the tunes "Han skal öppna Pärleporten" by Elsie Ahlwén (set to 625 "He the pearly gates will open"), "Saved by Grace" by George C. Stebbins (626, first line "Some day the silver cord will break"), and "Ahnfelt" by Oskar Ahnfelt (627, "There many shall come from the east and the west") tease my tonsils and test my gag reflex, especially the Ahnfelt one because its polka-band banality replaces a beautiful Swedish tune called "Der mange skal komme."

629 is the U.S. national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," including all four stanzas--most of which you only knew existed because your 10th grade U.S. history teacher forced you to learn one of them by heart. It's nice to know where to look in case you need to find those other stanzas, but it's strange to think of them being sung in church--particularly the bloodthirsty lines consigning all enemies of the star-spangled banner to "the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave," etc. 630 is "America, the Beautiful," 631 "My country! 'tis of thee," 632 the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," 633 a patriotic hymn by Leonard Bacon (1802-81) identifying the Plymouth Pilgrims as "our fathers," and 634 "O Canada" (in the interest of being fair and balanced). I guess when your church body is centered in Minnesota, you have to take extra care to make sure you're covered in case the wind blows your church across the border. Happily, this is not the Lutheran hymnal that contains "Maple Leaf Forever"--though I assure you, there is such a book.

So, in the last analysis, being American (or, at minimum, Canadian) is at least as much intrinsic to the piety of this hymnal as being Lutheran. Perhaps more so; because its hymn selection is thoroughly steeped in American cultural Christianity, and where that conflicts with Lutheran teachings--well, you can guess which one is set aside....

Chicken Soup à Dad

It's the time of year when you need every advantage you can get against the germs and bugs that want to get you down. Here's a medicinal classic made the way my Dad used to make it, once in a while when he was allowed to take over the whole kitchen for an entire day. It's one of a couple of all-day, go-for-broke recipes that dwell in the upper stories of my Comfort Food Pantheon. And so, I turn the floor over to Cuda:
Remember: I cook without a lot of measuring, go by taste and smell and adjust on the fly.

  • an entire chicken (for a lot of soup)
    • just the breasts (if you are making 4-5 quarts of soup)
    • or the dark meat if your prefer—it is a matter of taste
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Various spices—I would use:
    • Cumin
    • a touch of Rosemary
    • Caraway
    • Basil
    • Garlic powder
    • Onion powder
    • Thyme
  • one whole Onion
  • several cloves of garlic, or a couple of teaspoons of chopped garlic (from a jar)
  • celery
  • carrots
  • flour
  • egg
I like to start with a whole chicken (as purchased in the grocery store, not with feathers and innards). Clean out the body cavities. Cut the chicken up into legs, thighs, back, breast, wings, etc.

Fill a large pan with water—15 quart if you have it; smaller if you don’t, but big enough to make a lot of soup. Leave room at the top of the pan for the water to rise as you add chicken and other ingredients.

Cook chicken in the water thoroughly—skin on. Remove the chicken pieces, remove the skin from the pieces and discard the skin. De-bone the meat and dice it to desired size of meat pieces by personal preference—about a half inch on a side works for me. Put the meat back into the broth.

Add a lot of salt—to taste, but it takes a lot of salt in a lot of liquid, less in less liquid. I add pepper copiously. Other spices are added by the principle of opening the spice up, smelling it (or tasting) and if seems like it would be good in chicken soup I add some. Other spicing is done by taste as the soup progresses.

Chop the Onion and add it. Add garlic, diced or chopped. Use Onion powder and garlic powder—add to taste. Chop several stalks celery and add to the soup. Chop carrots and add to the soup. Cook at a simmer for an hour.

Cool soup to room temperature (or refrigerate). Scoop out fat, which will rise to the top, and discard. Re-heat soup to a boil. As it approaches a boil, taste and season as it seems to need seasoning.

While the soup is re-heating, take a cup of flour, add an egg, preferably without the shell, and mix into a dough, adding a pinch of salt. You can use water to speed the process, but the water makes and inferior egg-noodle. If you want more noodles, use more egg and more flour. My working principle is "the more noodles, the better".

Roll the dough out flat and fairly thin (1/8 of an inch). Cut the dough into strips. I use a pizza cutter for that purpose, although a knife or kitchen scissors work too. Width is by personal choice: 1/4 inch to 1 inch wide. Cut length of noodles to about five inches (also personal choice).

When soup is boiling gently, add noodles and allow them to cook for ten or fifteen minutes. You can add any vegetables to the soup you wish to add. I prefer mine with just celery and carrots. Serve.
Mmmmm, I can just about smell the stock cooking... feel my teeth biting through those thick, full-bodied noodles... and hear my Dad grumbling about how somebody keeps moving the utensil he was about to use. Alas, Dad doesn't get to cook very often because he and Stepmom have different views on kitchen hygiene and, frankly, it's her turf. I could use a bucket of this soup right now, though!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Boardless Cribbage

I don't remember who taught this to me, and I haven't consulted any reference books about it, but from memory here is a little two-player game, requiring one standard deck of playing-cards, that you may even be able to teach to someone who is too old and set in his/her ways to learn Cribbage (which, I find, is impossible to teach to anybody above college age--only kids are dumb enough not to realize how hard it is).

Somebody shuffles the deck (after Jokers are taken out), then deals to each player a stack of 12 cards face-down, followed by one card face-up on the table.

Beginning with the dealer's opponent, the two players take turns drawing a card off their piles and laying it face-up, arranging the cards around the initial card in a 5 x 5 square. It doesn't matter whether the opening card ends up at the center of the grid, or at one corner, or anywhere else, as long as all cards end up in the same 5 x5 square.

As they lay down their cards, each player is trying to give himself points while preventing his opponent from getting any. For the dealer, points come from combinations of cards in each vertical column (N-S); his opponent's points come from card-combinations in the horizontal rows (E-W), or vice versa as the players arrange between themselves.
  • Each combination of cards in a single column or row that adds up to 15 (counting A's as 1 and K's, Q's, and J's as 10), gives the relevant player 2 points.
    • For example, the combination 5, 7, 8, 10, J would have 6 points worth of 15's: 2 for the 5-10 combination, 2 for 5-J, and 2 for 7-8.
    • The combination 5, 5, 5, Q, K would have 14 points in 15's: 2 for each 5-Q combo, 2 for each 5-K, and 2 for the 5-5-5.
  • Each pair is worth 2 points; and so 3 of a kind = 3 pairs for 6 pts.; 4 of a kind = 6 pairs for 12 pts.
  • Each "run" of three or more cards in consecutive denominations (A is always below 2) is worth 3, 4, or 5 points depending on how many cards are in it.
    • And so the combination 6-7-7-8-9 would have the following points: 6 for the 15s (6-9, 7-8, 7-8); 2 for the pair (7-7), and 8 for the runs (6-7-8-9 with each 7), for a total of 16.
    • Because "double runs" come up so often, it may be helpful to remember that a "double run of 3" (such as 6-7-7-8) is worth 8 points, counting both the runs (6-7-8) and the pair (7-7), but not counting 15's.
    • Following the same principle, a "double run of 4" (such as 6-7-7-8-9), counting the pair, is worth 10 points.
    • Other pair-run combination one sometimes sees include a triple run (such as 5-6-6-6-7) for 15 points, and a quadruple run (e.g., 4-4-5-5-6) for 16 pts.
  • A flush (all 5 cards the same suit) is worth 5 points.
    • A 4-point flush, excluding only the starter card, may also be allowed if both players agree on it.
  • A jack of the same suit as the initial card laid down by the dealer, and in the same row or column, is worth 1 point ("knobs").
    • If the starter card itself is a jack, the dealer can claim 2 points for knobs.
When all 25 cards have been played, both players count the points in each of their rows or columns. The player who scores the most points in total, wins. In the event of a tie, the dealer wins... but the other player gets to deal next time!

With both players' consent, you can add an extra element of jeopardy to the game: If you can show your opponent that he overlooked any points while scoring his hand, you can add the the points he missed to your total.

IMAGES: Some of the numerous designs for cribbage boards, in case you ever feel brave enough to experience the full richness of cribbage. Note the board shaped like the number 29. This is a reference to the highest-scoring single hand that is possible in cribbage, with 8 pts. in 15's from different 5-5-5 combinations, 8 pts. in 15's from J-5 combinations, 12 pts. in pairs from different 5-5 combinations, and 1 pt. for "knobs" because the Jack is of the same suit as the starter card; 8+8+12+1=29. I have personally had this hand at least once. That much, at least, I have achieved in this life!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Drunk Food and Painted Music

Tonight I picked up a friend at Lambert Airport and, since we had time to blow, drove him down to my neighborhood in St. Louis's south city for a bite to eat. We dined at Baldo's Restaurant on the block of Hampton Ave. between Potomac and Oleatha Streets, where I had previously enjoyed one of the best plates of chicken marsala on record, and which I remembered as a cozy little joint with a parlor full of ornate settees and low tables at which one could imagine tidy old men drinking tiny cups of espresso and arguing in Italian about Inter Milan.

I've been carrying around a gift certificate for $25 off a meal at Baldo's since last June. Unfortunately, the fine print said it wasn't good on Saturdays. But, to make it up, our waitress offered us a terrific deal: a choice of one of four entrees and one of two sides, soup, salad, crusty bread, a glass of wine, and a scoop of gelato for something like $13. We went for it.

The rolls were indeed crusty. They were also big, warm, and covered in well-toasted sesame seeds, a flavor I have come to appreciate; and although a decanter of olive oil was on the table, the waitress was considerate enough to provide pats of butter and margarine as an alternative bread-spread. She also proved to be one of those waitresses to treasure, the kind who refill your icewater without asking or being asked.

The soup was a cup of piping-hot minestrone, which is to say, tender pieces of vegetable in a dark, beefy broth. No complaints. The wine was... well, I'm no wine expert, but given a choice between white and red, my friend and I both opted, rightly or wrongly, for the red. And whatever wine it was, it was good: not too bitter, as young wines can often be, and with a pleasant round full flavor that went down easily and didn't leave a chemical aftertaste. It was probably something cheap but well-cared-for and not so sharply distinctive that it would offend an uneducated palate. See, I can say something intelligent-sounding without knowing the first thing about wine!

For the salad, I went with the house Caesar and my friend asked for an Italian dressing. It isn't often you can say much about the salad. The leafy lettuces were nicely ripped, the dressing was delicious, and the broad, thin wedge of tomato that came with each salad (and I ate both of them, since my friend didn't want his) was exceptionally juicy and full of fresh tomatoey flavor. There were also rings of onion in there and perhaps other things that I forget. But let's face it, it was a salad and we had years of catching-up to do in only a couple of hours, so what I mostly remember is that it took me a long time to eat it because I was talking so much.

His main course was the chicken marsala, and his side was pasta in meat sauce. He was awestruck by the deliciousness of the chicken--two halves of chicken breast laid out under a garlicky marsala-wine sauce, with mushrooms on top--and I was, frankly, envious. On the other hand, he didn't think the meat sauce on his pasta was anything special, and it probably wasn't the "right" side to go with chicken. Oh, well. I had two pork chops with mushrooms in a sherry sauce, which except for being nicely done chops with an occasional extra-brown bit that I particularly liked, were nothing special. I only ordered it because (1) I didn't want to waste the opportunity to broaden my Baldo's experience beyond chicken marsala, and (2) when I asked the waitress what she would choose, between the shrimp scampi and this, she suggested this. Maybe I should have ordered the scampi!

My side-dish was stuffed zucchini, which I was surprised to find out was stuffed with a sweet, fluffy, ricota-cheese mixture and covered with some sauce or other. I think I got the better deal on the side-dish, though it wasn't quite what I had visualized when the waitress said "stuffed zucchini"--here was me, thinking of an Italian variant on Ari's stuffed eggplant. It all went down, and stayed down, and as to what it turned out to be, I can make no complaint.

For dessert we had not only the house-specialty Italian hazelnut gelato, but also--because my friend had never had one before--a pair of cannoli, one each. Crispy on the outside, cool and creamy on the inside, with a perky hint of lemon flavor and a decorative maraschino cherry at each end, they were absolutely delicious. I've never had two cannoli that were alike (from different restaurants, I mean), so it's hard to compare Baldo's cannoli with those of the competition. The pastry tube part reminded me of those thin tea-cookies (ginger snaps, etc.) that you can get in long cardboard tubes at grocery stores that cater to international tastes. I would be much more excited about those cookies if I could have them with the fluffy, lemony, creamy filling that filled these cannoli.

Then I drove and drove and drove. I had to get my friend from St. Louis to Litchfield, Illinois, and drive back in time for an 8:00 concert at Powell Symphony Hall, to which I had previously purchased a ticket. It ended up being a close-run thing. I arrived at about 7:45, with just enough time to spare that I didn't have to drive recklessly, and coughed up the full $10 for gated-lot parking so that I didn't have to circle around looking for a free piece of curb.

The concert opened with the Concert Românesc by modern Hungarian-born composer György Ligeti, he whose Atmospheres formed part of the soundtrack of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The "Romanian Concerto" was surprisingly un-avante garde, having been composed in 1951 under the dictates of Hungary's ruling Communist Party, which demanded something very much "of the people." In spite of its classical sonorities and folkish themes, the piece was yanked after only one rehearsal and remained under the ban for 20 years. I enjoyed the four connected movements, except for a few flubs in the horn section which one comes to expect after a while; the orchestra's concert leader furnished an agile violin solo that helped drive the piece to its energetic close.

Then David Halen came out on stage and knocked Brahms's Violin Concerto out of the park. (Pictured: Brahms and his friend Joseph Joachim, the original soloist in this concerto.) It was a good thing that Halen had a lot of room to move around in, because he did a lot of expressive footwork while sawing out one beautiful melody after another, from the first movement's yearning-soaring theme which the soloist adds to the themes already introduced by the orchestra, to the tender melody first laid out by a gorgeous oboe solo in Movement II, all the way to the finale's wild Hungarian fiddle theme.

Perhaps the only tiny flaw in the concerto's performance--more like a beauty-mark than a boo-boo--was how the orchestra seemed a mite surprised by the quickness of conductor David Robertson's tempo at the beginning of the middle movement. But then, Robertson always seems to be fighting against the performance conventions which rely too much on exaggerated tempi to wring every drop of pathos out of a slow movement; he proves, again and again, that all the emotional power the piece needs is written right into it, if only we can trust the composer.

Finally, after the intermission, the orchestra showed us Pictures at an Exhibition, Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky's celebrated homage to an artist friend who had recently died, in the popular orchestral arrangement by Maurice Ravel. It's a stunningly powerful piece, full of strange colors, spooky imagery, and viscerally effective moods ranging from nobility to humor to dread to panic and finally, to a colossal "big finish" in which religious piety and civil grandeur first alternate and then blend together in a sustained shout of brass and bells and percussion and anything else that can vibrate.

Pictures always brings down the house. Nevertheless, I wish the orchestra could have sounded better prepared for it. There were more times, as in the second movement of the Brahms, when one gathered that they weren't expecting the tempo Mr. Robertson gave them. I drew this impression from a variety of little things--a bit of fuzziness here, a xylophone note out of place there, the usual things that can go wrong in any performance without reflecting badly on anyone... except the saxophone soloist, who clearly needed to spend more time locked up inside "The Old Castle," until he could get through his moment in the spotlight without mangling his lines. Repeatedly.

But I'd better shut up about that now, because I'm going to be on stage with these folks next week and we're all going to make each other look really good. Mr. "I just washed my saxophone and I can't do a thing with it" was well forgotten by the overwhelming conclusion of the piece, leaving the audience applauding so loudly that my phrase "bring down the house" might have nearly come true. After all, a performance doesn't have to be note-perfect to be a great one. It can often be the ones that skate dangerously close to the edge of the ice that thrill us the most, the performances animated by a commitment to what the music means and an excitement about the power it wields, that make the fuzzy moments and even the saxophone flubs worthwhile because now, we too share the same thrill and conviction.

IMAGES from top: Baldo's; red wine; chicken marsala; cannoli; Ligeti; Brahms & Joachim; Halen; Mussorgsky; Ravel.