It was the most fun I’ve had, standing up, for a long time: this afternoon’s concert by the Amici Ensemble at the Glenn Gould Studio with guest chef Alexandra Feswick of Brockton General. The sun shone outside and it was unseasonably warm, which might have accounted for the full house – or perhaps it was the unique opportunity the concert afforded to explore the relationship between music and food.
Musically, it was a bold and eclectic program that ranged from Mozart, Rossini and Schubert through Poulenc and Martinu to Nikolai Kapustin, Leonard Bernstein and William Bolcom, the heartbreakingly sublime to the hilarious. Some pieces were inspired by food; where others were concerned, we invited Alex Feswick to listen to the music and then interpret it as an hors d’oeuvre. Her food surprised and astonished and invariably delighted the audience, her responses ranging from the instinctive to the cerebral. She did most of her prep work at her restaurant but created a kitchen in one of the Studio’s larger dressing rooms to finish the dishes. They were served during an extended intermission which meant the audience were also given a work-out for their memories, forced to remember the music from the first half of the concert when they tasted each piece’s respective treat and then to remember the taste and texture of other dishes once they sat down to listen to part two. It all worked splendidly.
We began with L’Invitation au Château by Francis Poulenc. He wrote it in 1950 after seeing the play of the same name written by Jean Anouilh – a play that might be more familiar to you in the adaptation by Christopher Fry called Ring Round the Moon. If you recall, it’s a satirical comedy of manners with twin brothers in love with different women and all sorts of deceitful schemes, assignations and misconceptions. But it’s far from a door-slamming farce – there’s a bittersweet edge to it – snobbish confrontations between lovers of different social classes – and the frame of the play is the smouldering rubble of the aftermath of World War II, looking back to a more genteel era of waltzes and country-house weekends. It was the play that inspired Poulenc’s lyrical, nostalgic music and its plot that got Alex thinking about deceptive twins. She sent out a “blackcurrant jelly” topped with pea shoots that was really beets, not blackcurrants.
Bohuslaf Martinu was a prolific Czech composer who moved to Paris in 1923, at the age of 33, where he discovered all the musical joys of surrealism, neoclassicism and jazz. He composed La Revue de Cuisine in 1927 as a ballet involving the tango and the Charleston, and then quickly worked it into the four-movement suite the Amici ensemble and their brilliant musical guests performed. The ballet’s narrative is a whimsicality set in a kitchen with dancers portraying a variety of cooking utensils involved in a range of love affairs and dalliances. We withheld this interesting libretto from our chef, hoping she would respond more directly to the music. And she did. For her, the many distinct layers of sound from the piano, violin, cello, trumpet, basson and clarinet conjured images of walking in a forest, as if in a dream – Snow White suddenly approached by a 1920s flapper. The forest led to aromatic thoughts of mushrooms; the rich musical layers to buttery puff pastry. The result was delicious – little pastry discs topped with peppered goat cheese, caramelized onions and mushrooms that Alex had partially dried and then re-infused with butter, thyme, garlic and lemon juice.
We gave Chef a break for the third composer – the immortal Gioachino Rossini. I have always loved the story of Rossini’s life. He was born in 1792, the son of talented but impoverished musicians and when his father was imprisoned for backing the wrong political side he and his mother went to live with his grandmother, who was a baker. He was apprenticed to a pork butcher while he studied music – and that experience, as much as his gran’s pastries, helped form his lifelong passion for delicious food. Young Gioachino worked incredibly hard and by the age of 38 he was the toast of Europe, having composed no less than 38 operas. At that point he decided to retire and spent the second half of his life, another 38 years, coincidentally, in total self-indulgence, famous and beloved, eventually settling in Paris where his home became a glittering salon. His passions were devoted to his second wife, Olympe Pélissier (a great beauty who had been, in her youth, the model for Judith in Vernet’s painting of Judith and Holofernes), and to their parrot, Perruche, and their little dog, Nini. And above all to food, for Rossini was a seriously accomplished amateur chef. Many dishes were created in his honour, including, of course, Tournedos Rossini.
He still composed, but only for friends and for his private gatherings, with no thought of publication. Among his last works was The Sins of Old Age and it begins with four hors d’oeuvres dedicated to radishes, anchovies, gherkins and butter. Serouj Kradjian (one of the Amici’s three artistic directors) played Anchovies, a set of variations that conjured up images of shoals of the living fish, flashing and darting in the water. Before that he played Dried Figs, another of the maestro’s food-inspired dainties, a companion piece to Raisins (dedicated to Perruche the parrot), and Hazelnuts (dedicated to Nini the dog). Dried Figs was dedicated to his wife – not that he was in any way likening her to the sweet-but-wizened fruit. Rossini explained at the time that he was remembering a morning when he woke her up in bed with a plate of delectable dried figs for her breakfast. He followed it with a Fig’ of a different kidney – a piano reduction of highlights from The Barber of Seville – a dazzling virtuoso piece. One imagined the great man playing it for his smiling guests after dinner, showing off the fact that he still had his technical musical chops, reminding them of his genius – a delicious confection indeed.
During the intermission, I hung about backstage, grabbing stuff off the plates of food that Alex Feswick continuously sent out to the ravenous audience in the lobby.
Act two began with Mozart’s exquisite aria, L’ameró saró costante, from his opera The Shepherd King, written when he was 19 and first performed in Salzburg in 1775. The role of the shepherd king, Amintas, was originally written for a castrato voice but was sung this afternoon, unforgettably, by the dazzling soprano Aline Kutan. It’s a moment in the opera when Amintas sings of his true love for the beautiful Elisa but the man who overhears the song, Agenor, thinks he’s singing about Tamiri, the woman Agenor loves, and is therefore heartbroken… (Yep, it’s an opera…) Chef Alex responded to the paradox of passionate love set within the ironical emotional context of heartbreak and represented it in a startlingly literal way, sautéeing chicken’s hearts quickly with a montée of butter and soft white onions, cutting them to the quick with a piece of tartly pickled carrot and then impaling them on a skewer as the coup de grace de l’amour. The hearts were piteously tender and delicious. While some audience members seemed alarmed by the tiny, bulbous, pink organs, most devoured many.
After that, we heard the fiendishly difficult, jazz-influenced Burlesque for Cello and Piano by Ukrainean composer Nikolai Kapustin, and then Leonard Bernstein’s 1947 song cycle, La Bonne Cuisine. Each of the four songs is a setting of a recipe from a cookbook – La Bonne Cuisine Francaise by Emile Dumont, that was awarded an honourable mention in the Great Exposition of 1889 and has since been through 31 editions – it’s still available on Amazon. Plum Pudding, Queues de Boeuf, Tavouk Gueunksis (a Turkish chicken dish) and Civet a Toute Vitesse (sung incredibly fast by Aline Kutan) were the recipes he chose. Chef Alex chose to interpret the Queues de Boeuf, braising ox tails with a brunoise of carrots and celeriac, reducing the braising liquid and adding it to the fork-pulled meat which she then formed into plump, juicy, melt-in-the-mouth croquettes topped with tart plum sauce. This time, the entire audience swooned.
Then The Shepherd on the Rock – one of many lieder Schubert wrote in 1828, in the final months of his tragically short life. He was only 31 when he died. The song was commissioned by Schubert’s friend the operatic soprano Pauline Anna Milder-Hauptmann as an exhibition piece that would show off her command of a wide range of emotions, and Aline Kutan sang it superbly with Joaquin Valdepeñas on the clarinet and Serouj Kradjian on piano. So much of the music Schubert wrote in his last two years seems deeply introverted and meditative – you can hear a vast silence behind the music – certainly in the intensely lonely middle section of this lied – and yet there are also moments (the final section that looks forward to the coming of spring) when he seems to find reconciliation with the infinite.
I first heard this music years ago in a concert hall in Germany. I was really over there for the spargelfest – the annual festival dedicated to white asparagus – when the whole country aches and yearns for white asparagus and every restaurant menu is devoted to it. Ever since then I have imagined the sound of a clarinet as the aural representation of poached white asparagus – bright, firm, shiny, slippery, tubular, perfect – as flawless as Joaquin’s playing – with a little soft, grated, almost-melting Limberger cheese in the lower register.
Chef Alex approached the music in a different way, putting herself into the mind of the shepherd, imagining what he might have to eat up in the mountains. In her interpretation, the lad was also lucky enough to be rather a dazzling cook, setting down his clarinet to rustle up a little potato rösti, adding a dab of the crème fraiche he must have made earlier that morning and topping it with a shaved slice of his air-dried bundnerfleisch.
The sweet finale of our afternoon was an outrageously funny song by the serious and much-revered American composer and pianist William Bolcom, called Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise. One of Bolcom’s lifelong goals has been to erase the boundaries between popular songs and art songs and this number certainly achieves that, but at the same time the lyric drags gastronomical dissonance down to new and abysmal depths. It’s sung by a woman on the committee of some sort of small-town club and is a litany of the dishes served at its “culture night,” including “strawberry ice enshrined in rice with bits of tuna fish,” and “shrimp salad topped with choc’late sauce and garnished with a leek.” Chef Alex was keen to prepare something inspired by the words but that idea was firmly vetoed by all. Instead we finished with a redemptive encore – Morgen, by Richard Strauss – one of the most beautiful and rapturous songs ever written, impeccably sung by Aline Kutan and played by Serouj Kadjrian on piano and Marie Bérard on the violin. Its ethereal intensity sent the audience into prolonged applause (Alex Feswick received a standing ovation) and we all stepped out into the warm, sunlit evening emotionally drained but thoroughly well fed.
The Amici Ensemble (www.amiciensemble.com) is playing again on December 16, January 29 and April 22, offering the most creative series of chamber music programs I’ve ever come across. How lucky we are to have such artists in our midst!