Month: December 2008

Tho’ hard and dry at first

Critic-at-Large Moe offers his painterly image to wish everyone a happy holiday season. It’s the most wonderful deadweight loss of the year! We’ll be back in the new year. (Maybe sooner if more stories like this try to slip under the holiday radar.) In the meantime, enjoy a batch of baked goodness from Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, first published in 1796:

Another Chriſtmas Cookey.

To three pound flour, ſprinkle a tea cup of fine powdered coriander ſeed, rub in one pound butter, and one and half pound ſugar, diſſolve three tea ſpoonfuls of pearl aſh in a tea cup of milk, kneed all together well, roll three quarters of an inch thick, and cut or ſtamp into ſhape and ſize you pleaſe, bake ſlowly fifteen or twenty minutes; tho’ hard and dry at firſt, if put into an earthern pot, and dry cellar, or damp room, they will be finer, ſofter and better when ſix months old.

Oggi rivivi in me!

I am proudly and incurably a Puccini addict. There’s not many other composers that combine such a lush surface with so many arresting, idiosyncratic details of harmony and orchestration—Messiaen, maybe, at least among this year’s anniversary composers. It’s sometimes startling to pick apart a Puccini score and realize just how many completely left-field things are going on beneath that gleaming hood. This is a guy who made parallel octaves a viable harmonic resource, after all.

For Puccini’s 150th birthday, three versions of “In questa reggia” from Turandot. FIrst: Dame Eva Turner, who heard the premiere, first sang the role less than a year later, and recorded the aria in 1928.

Buon compleanno!

Un ballo di macher

Hanukkah started tonight at sundown. Spin that dreidel! Here’s a recipe I was absolutely going to test and photograph—gefilte fish as prepared by Richard Tucker‘s mom—before Boston got hit with three days of snowstorms and shoveling, which I’m sure is some sort of payback for all the bad driving. Anyway, I’ll get on the gefilte as soon as I can feel my back again.

This is from Peter Gravina’s 1964 collection The Bel Canto Cookbook, which I picked up at this place, which is definitely a mekhaye.

Sara Tucker’s Gefilte Fish

3 pounds whitefish
2 pounds pike
1 pound carp
4 onions
2 raw eggs
½ teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper
2 teaspoons cracker meal
3 quarts fish stock
2 carrots

Have fish dealer filet fish but retain the heads and vertebrae. Salt the fish and refrigerate while you make the stock. Combine the fish heads and vertebrae with 2 chopped onions, a little salt and pepper, and cover with water. Bring the stock to a boil and simmer gently for 15 to 20 minutes. Put the fish and two additional onions through a food chopper and grind them finely. To this mixture add the eggs, sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the cracker meal and chop until the mixture is thoroughly blended. Shape the mixture into balls 3 inches in diameter. Immerse the fish in the boiling stock (add water to cover if necessary) and cook covered for about 2½ hours, until the fish balls turn white and double in size. Cut the carrots into ½-inch slices and add to the pot ½ hour before the fish balls are finished. Yields approximately 2 dozen.

Quote of the Day

The significance of language struck [Richard] Wrangham most forcefully on an occasion when a group of [Mbuti] hunters had killed an elephant…. Excitement was intense, and appeared dangerously volatile as the animal was skinned and dismembered. In terms of activity and noise, the scene matched anything of a comparable nature that Wrangham had observed among chimpanzees…. THe noise was cacophonous, but amid the din patterns of negotiation became discernible. The hunters and those with immediate rights to a share of the carcass were told to honour the obligations of kinship and give meat to their relatives. Old debts and favours were settled in exchange for meat; new pledges were contracted. The talking went on for hours, doubtless reinforcing a long-standing web of reciprocal obligations that was fundamental to the social order of the region. Wrangham says:

Chimpanzees in a comparable situation would have gone berserk. They would have screamed and squabbled and physical strength ultimately would have determined the distribution of the meat, and there probably would have been some violence between competing individuals. There may have been some bad feeling among the Mbuti too, but aggressive tendencies were constrained by the intervention of other individuals. They could talk about their differences, and bring in the issues of what happened in the past and what might happen in the future. In short—they could negotiate. Talking reduced the fighting.

—John Reader, Africa: A Biography of the Continent

I wonder if this is why the dream of bringing disparate human communities together through music—Schopenhauer’s “universal language”—simultaneously seems to be so tantalizingly reasonable and wishful thinking: it re-enacts the process of negotiation, but without the specificity to make anyone feel satisfied. (For every instance of music peacefully bridging a divide, it’s not hard to find an example of music being used to foment division and/or violence.)

Absence of Malice

Don Rosenberg, the Cleveland Plain Dealer critic who, a few months ago, was rather infamously reassigned for being allegedly too hard on the Cleveland Orchestra and its music director, Franz Welser-Möst, has now sued both the paper and the orchestra for a legion of offenses, including defamation, age discrimination and (I love this phrase) “tortious interference.”

Most of the reaction to Rosenberg’s plight has taken up familiar themes: freedom of speech, journalistic independence, the value of an experienced observer, &c. (All eminently valid.) But there’s one angle that I haven’t really seen, which is this: from a circulation standpoint, what are the powers-that-be at the Plain Dealer thinking? A pre-packaged feud between one of the biggest cultural institutions in town and your own on-staff critic drops into your lap, and your initial instinct is to somehow make it go away? I’m not familiar enough with the specifics of Rosenberg’s suit to know whether he has a legal leg to stand on or not, but I think the Newhouse family (who own the Plain Dealer via their holding company Advance Publications) might want to take a second look at a management team that seems averse to exploiting opportunities to, you know, sell newspapers.

I mean, come on, the Plain Dealer’s the paper getting sued, and they themselves get scooped by The New York Times. Daniel Wakin gets hilariously impolitic quotes from the orchestra’s lawyer; the Plain Dealer gets this:

The Plain Dealer declined to comment, and a spokeswoman for the Musical Arts Association could not be reached.

Declined to comment? Why would they not play this story for all it’s worth? (At least their online editor can see the appeal.)

I’m not saying that critics should get out their knives solely in order to boost circulation, but newspaper criticism is equal parts information and entertainment, and I would hope that papers would still know how to parlay a little controversy into beneficial entertainment. Critic-at-Large Moe and I spent a couple of lunch hours this week reveling in the glorious pre-Code cynicism of Lewis Milestone’s 1931 film version of The Front Page (mainly to enjoy how little things have changed in my old hometown); can you imagine how one of those papers would have reacted if the local orchestra had hired a PR firm to lobby for a friendlier critic? They would have laughed them out the door—and then bragged about it in print. (And, if it was a two-paper town, God help them if they didn’t.) Journalism is a long way from the callous unscrupulousness that Hecht and MacArthur romanticized—even some contemporary reporters found The Front Page to be defamatory caricature—but objective doesn’t have to mean cautious and boring. Rosenberg’s reassignment, apart from being journalistically suspect, is, to me at least, symptomatic of the creeping corporate blandness leaving a lot of papers high and dry while digital content blooms around them. Milestone’s film opens with a great joke, a title card proclaiming that

This story is laid in a mythical kingdom.

Keep playing it safe, and the newspaper industry is going to end up as its own Neverland.