Month: July 2007

"Let your guests wait—they will be rewarded"

Another highlight from The Boston Symphony Cookbook: how Andrzej Panufnik liked to cook peaches.

Peaches Panufnik

6 large, perfectly ripe peaches (“must be fresh”), peeled
1½ cups heavy cream or
crème fraîche (or a combination)
½ to ¾ cup soft brown sugar

Slice the peaches into a buttered shallow 10-inch pie plate or baking dish, leaving ½ inch room at the top; the peaches should lie as flat as possible.

Whip the cream until very thick, and smooth it over the peaches.
Place in the freezer for 2 to 3 hours, until the cream is very firm but the peaches are not frozen solid.

Preheat the broiler (or a salamander) about 15 minutes before serving. Let your guests wait—they will be rewarded. Just before serving, sift some of the brown sugar over the semifrozen cream in a layer no more than 18 inch thick, covering the cream completely. Broil quickly until the sugar caramelizes. Add another layer and repeat the process, but work fast. Allow a few moments for the melted sugar to harden, and test the topping with taps of a tablespoon. When the properly percussive sound is achieved, rush it to the table, and serve immediately.

I took Andrzej at his word and used the broiler, but next time, I’ll use the blowtorch—faster, more even, and far more dangerous/fun. The editors of the cookbook reassure the timid that, in spite of his adamant insistence on fresh peaches, canned peaches will do in a pinch. But with all those summer peaches just lying around, you’d be a fool to break out the can opener; just dunk them in boiling water for thirty seconds, then into a bowl of ice water, and the skins slip right off. While you’re at it, you can take a listen to Panufnik’s Piano Trio played by its namesake.

For a true Panufnik experience, stay up all night eating the peaches and drinking cup after cup of strong black coffee while listening to ancient Polish chant, then, in your heart-racing caffienated state, fail your army physical the next morning. (Yes, that is how Andrzej avoided military service.) One of the better desserts I’ve come across in a while. Even critic-at-large Moe was sitting without being told in anticipation of more bits of crunchy topping.

Take a picture, sweetie; I ain’t got time to waste

Romantic music had Gothic landscapes. Symphonic jazz had Art Deco. Postwar serialism had Abstract Expressionism. (Bebop had it, too.) Hip-hop had graffiti. Surf rock had Ed “Big Daddy” Roth; psychedelic rock had Rick Griffin. Minimalism had minimalism. Expressionism had expressionism. Impressionism had impressionism.

So here’s today’s exercise in prognostication: what will be the visual artistic style that history will glue to the current era of new music, post-minimalism, non-pop, the new eclecticism, whatever you want to call it? Keep in mind that there doesn’t necessarily need to be any direct connection (many of the early graffiti artists in 1970s New York weren’t even aware of hip-hop or rap) and that, yes, today’s plethora of styles will inevitably be shoehorned into a crude generalization (the association between the 1950s and serialism, for example, ignores Barber, Poulenc, late Hindemith, early Rorem, Cage, etc., etc.). So what’ll it be? Conceptual installations? Video? Graphic novels? Damien Hirst? Komar and Melamid? Gerhard Richter? Jeff Koons? None of the above?

You could also probably divide musicians, composers especially, into those of us who like to think about this sort of thing and those who couldn’t possibly care less. I personally enjoy pondering the historical perception (and future historical perception) of music because that’s part of what attracted me to classical music in the first place: the idea that there was a repertoire that was completely of its own time and place, but had the possibility to be reinterpreted for each subsequent era and yet remain vital. And yet so much of the music I love was created by artists who regarded the past as deadweight baggage to be pitched overboard in the interests of speed and navigability. It works the other way around, too: the scorched-earth Boulez took his cues from the early-music-editing Webern, for instance.

It’s odd that music and the plastic arts are always paired up in terms of stylistic designations—the relationship between music and literary movements has always struck me as both temporally and intellectually closer. Then again, music is pretty odd all by itself, so what’s the use of getting worked up about it at this late date, right? So make a frame out of your fingers and see what you see—Gehry or Grand Theft Auto?

Les lignes, les couleurs, les sons deviennent vagues

Régine Crespin died on Wednesday—with the passing of Beverly Sills, that makes two representative national heroines in one week. Crespin didn’t have nearly as high a profile on this side of the Atlantic, but this committed Francophile was in awe of her unfailingly elegant tone and her absolutely effortless way with the language. This is a 1964 performance of Fauré’s “Soir,” a lovely object lesson in rich, intimate mélodie singing.

She’s shamefully underrepresented on YouTube; here’s hoping some of her Berlioz interpretations will turn up.

En elle tout séduit

Every time a larger-than-life artist passes away, particularly in the tradition- and history-conscious world of classical music, it’s customary to dust off the “end of an era” line, but in the case of Beverly Sills, it really does seem like the end of a certain era, and not just because it seemed like she would always be around, forever coming out of retirement to take another set of reins somewhere.

There’s one era, I think, that she actually outlived. Most of the obituaries and tributes I’ve been reading today make a point of contrasting her down-to-earth personality as a singer with her success as an administrator, particularly at steering the New York City Opera through a notably difficult period in the 1980s. Tim Page spelled it out clearest in his tribute:

She was the telegenic “diva next door,” a friendly redhead from Brooklyn whose friends called her Bubbles; she was an aggressive Manhattan snob who never let it be forgotten that she did hold grudges. She was the warmest and most brilliant American coloratura soprano of her time; she was a high-culture power broker and adept political infighter. Those who knew her slightly liked her enormously; those who knew her better were sometimes a little afraid of her.

Beverly Sills, who died of lung cancer yesterday at the age of 78, was a complicated person, and any attempt to sum up her life and work will necessarily turn into a string of contradictions.

Sills always struck me as someone whose ebullience sprang from an absolute comfort in her own skin, which is perhaps the best political defense one can have, and throughout her career, though just as demanding as any diva, those demands came with a distinctly non-temperamental, cool assessment of risk and reward. (Anthony Tommasini relates the famous story of her landing the role of Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, as much a Napoleonically deft flanking maneuver as a prima donna‘s ultimatum.) Besides, anyone who makes a career out of classical music by necessity develops a certain amount of determination and thick skin; Sills just had it to an unusual degree. So why the surprise? Sills herself thought it was her gender; in 1986, having stared down one musician’s strike and succesfully avoided another, she took stock of her NYCO tenure in a New York Times interview. ”What I really resent is that people underestimated me,” she said. ”I was naive when I took on this job, but I was not stupid. I think if I was a man, I wouldn’t have taken the abuse I took here.”

So as you peruse the recorded legacy, it’s also worth considering the way society has changed in the past half-century such that Sills strikes us as contradictory. Back in the 1940s, when Sills was just starting out, her combination of grit, savvy, and vivacity wouldn’t have been hard to reconcile. She would have been called a tough dame. It would have been a compliment.